Blogs at Amazon

Nonfiction

"Like a Mix of Don Draper and Rasputin": Moving & Shaking in 21st-Century Russia

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New RussiaWhen the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90s, the West rejoiced with the relief that came with the end of the Cold War and the possibility of an era of peace and cooperation. At the same time, its corporations and conglomerates trained a beady eye toward its newly opened markets, and a seemingly virgin economic landscape soon became home to icons such as Coke and McDonalds and Levi’s. But the door was open wide, and tagging along with big business were some seedier characters: organized crime, a youth-and-glamour-obsessed oligarchy, and an entertainment complex hungry for the new concepts of its Western counterparts. That’s where Peter Pomerantsev comes in. Born in Kiev but raised in Great Britain, Pomerantsev returned to Russia as a consultant to its burgeoning film and television—especially “reality” television—industries. What he found was a capitalist’s wet dream: an unfettered cash and service economy with no apparent limits on cash or available services--one where Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, if you can pay for it. At the top of it all sits Vlad Putin, infusing the old TASS tactics with Hollywood flair to create a vision of a bare-chested (bear-chested?) virility and power, of both self and state. Pomerantsev finds himself gazing deeper into this looking-glass world—willingly and otherwise—and he finds it impossible to look away, as will his readers. This is not your father’s Russia, and yet it kind of is.

All that sounds hyberbolic, right? But it's all there. And to demonstrate, Pomerantsev has provided short biographies of some of the book's most interesting players. Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month.

 


Peter Pomerantsev (photo by Natasha Belauskine) Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: A Cast of Characters

By Peter Pomerantsev

 

Vladislav Surkov: The Kremlin "Vizier"
"Egor could see to the heights of creation...."

The hidden author of the Putin system, Surkov trained as a theater director, made his name as a PR guru before going on to become one of Putin's right hand men, running Russian politics like a mix of Don Draper and Rasputin. In his spare time he pens satirical, self-referential novels about cynical political operators who have sold their souls, writes rock lyrics and essays on modern art. When asked for his reaction to being sanctioned by US and EU for playing a key role in the annexation of Crimea Surkov answered: "I see the decision by the administration in Washington as an acknowledgment of my service to Russia. It’s a big honor for me. I don't have accounts abroad. The only things that interest me in the US are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing."

Oliona: A Moscow Holly Golightly
"It's all true, you can really have the life; it's not just in the movies!"

Oliona has come to Moscow from a bankrupt mafia-run mining town to make it as a gold-digger in the city's decadent clubs. She's quite open, even proud of her bag of tricks, and attends a gold-digger school where she's taught how to seduce and keep an oligarch: never wear jewelry on a first date, she learns, dress down- so that he wants to buy you presents. But she's hitting her mid-twenties and that might spell the end of her career. She worries her sugar daddy is going off her, while her generation dream of Putin as the ultimate sugar daddy of them all.

Vitaly: Gangster Turned Film Director
"Usually you’d be one of my victims. But in this case we'll be partners."

Vitaly used to be a gangster in Siberia. Then he took all his all-gotten gains and ploughed them into the movie business. But they're no ordinary movies. He makes films about his own life, with himself in the main role, and his gangster buddies playing themselves. He spent years behind bars watching gangster movies and thought they were all fake: only a real gangster can make a real gangster movie.

Jambik Hatohov: The Fattest Boy in the World

Jambik Hatohov is 7 years old and weighs over a hundred kilograms (220 pounds), making him the biggest boy in the world. He lives in the North Caucascus, in a part of the country where the choice growing up is between being a wrestler or a Jihadi. His single mum thinks she can use Jambik's weight as a way out of the squalor, and hopes he can become a TV star. Meanwhile more and more "black widows," the name given to suicide bombers form the North Caucascus, make their way to Moscow to blow themselves up in the name of Allah.

Yana Yakovelva: Imprisoned Business Woman
"You think prison is something bad that happens to other people. And then you wake up and my God you’re a convict."

Yana was a poster girl for the new, capitalist Russia, running her own petro-chemicals business and living what seemed like a perfectly successful, Western-style life. But in Putin's Russia, normality is only ever an illusion. When some high-level bureaucrats want a piece of her company they throw her in prison on trumped up charges--and Yana is plunged into another Russia of convicts and corrupt courts. As she fights to get out, she finds her own case leads right to the top of the Kremlin.

Alexander Mozhaev: The Guardian Spirit of Old Moscow
"The drama of human lives is written in the buildings. We will be gone; only places remain."

The city is destroyed to make way for neo-Stalinist skyscrapers, and Mozhaev tries to save the last vestiges of the old town. This is more than about just buildings, in a system which is misusing history in the name of tyranny the fight for the city becomes a fight for a different sort of Russia. Mozhaev is the last romantic in a city of corruption.

Ruslana Korshunova: Supermodel
"I'm so lost, will I ever find myself?"

A Russian supermodel, star of a Nina Ricci ad, who killed herself by jumping from a NY skyscraper. She seemed perfectly happy, wasn't into drugs, was preparing to go to university. What lead to her death? Was it a tragic love story? Could it have been murder? And is her death connected to that of another top model who also died by jumping from a high-rise, this time in Kiev?

The Night Wolves
"We only have a few years to rescue the soul of holy Russia."

As Moscow plunges into a messianic fervor sects bubble to the surface. None is more striking than the Night Wolves, a Russian Hells Angels biker gang who have found God and see themselves on a mission to save the Russian soul from the decadent, Satanic West. Their faith combines Orthodox Christianity with a worship of Stalin and heavy metal. Surkov, as ever, is in the background, making the Night Wolves national stars as the Kremlin toys with a dangerous, and surreal, religious nationalist ideology.

Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich
"This is a very Russian story, with lots of killers, where the president himself is almost a killer."

Two Russian oligarchs--now based in London--who are fighting the largest private litigation in history. Berezovsky, the older mentor known as the "Godfather of the Kremlin," accuses his protégé, Abramovich, known as the "Stealth Oligarch," of "acting like a gangster" and extorting a five-billion-dollar company from him. The trial opens up the insides of the Putin system, showing how it is increasingly growing to influence the West as the Russian super-rich descend onto London, Monaco and New York.

Vladik Mamyshev Monroe
"I want to try on every persona the world has ever known."

A performance artist, the inevitable guest at parties attended by the inevitable tycoons and supermodels, arriving dressed as Gorbachev, a fakir, Tutankhamen, the Russian President. In a world where gangsters become artists, gold diggers quote Pushkin and Hells Angels hallucinate themselves as saints and where "performance" is the buzz-word Vladik is a mascot and prankster philosopher. But as the new Russia tumbles from decadence to madness, from glamour to dictatorship, he finds himself appalled at the very cult of performance he celebrates: "Putin will eat up our country," he writes. "One day we will reach into the cupboard and reach for our clothes and they will turn to dust in our hands because they have been eaten by maggots."

 

Author photo by Natasha Belauskine

Martin Short: Humble Comedy Legend

I Must Say by Martin ShortYou might know him best as Ed Grimley, the grimacing, high-trousered pop-culture nerd of the rhinoceros-worthy quiff. Or maybe Jiminy Glick, the Hollywood "insider" who packs both obsequiousness and obliviousness into a single awkward, inapproptiate package. Over his long career, Martin Short has created countless iconic characters, filling many roles across a career spanning SCTV, Saturday Night Live, and dozens of films.

His new autobiography, I Must Say, is the story of his remarkable life--hilarious, heartbreaking, and inspiring. From his showbiz-obsessed childhood to Toronto's Second City improv troupe to Hollywood success as a "humble comedy legend," we meet his friends, loves, and co-conspirators: Gilda Radner, Mel Brooks, Nora Ephron, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Shaffer, David Letterman all make appearances, as do Steve Martin and Tom Hanks (in fact, their pre-colonoscopy ritual is not to be missed). We also learn how his upbeat sensibilities helped him cope with the losses of his older brother and both parents within months of each other, and more recently, his wife of thirty years. 

Short stopped by our room at Book Expo America in May to talk about the book, inspiration for writing it, and a few of his most memorable characters.

 

Spooktacular Spooktacular! 13 Picks from the Master of Cult Cinema

Cult Horror MoviesWho's up for some scary movies? I am. So is Danny Peary.

Peary established his bona fides as an expert in weird cinema with his Cult Movies series from the early 80s: three volumes packed with wisdom on off-beat movies of all stripes. The requirements for "cult" status were specific; all of Peary's subjects "elicited a fiery passion in moviegoers that exists long after their initial releases,” a rubric which made The Maltese Falcon, Emmanuelle, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show all fair game for his always enlightening and entertaining essays. The books were cult hits on their own--I skimmed them between customers during my Tower Books counter shifts in the early 90s, along with other books of ill-repute, such as The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. Tower, remember, was open late.

Though they have been lately out of print, Workman Publishing is now releasing Peary's essays from Cult Movies as a series of genre-specific ebooks. Horror and Sci-Fi are first, with Midnight Movies (November 11) and Crime (December 2) following later this year.

So who better than to ask for recommendations on spooky Halloween films? Here are Peary's picks for chill-seekers of all tolerances.

 


My Lucky Thirteen for Halloween, by Danny Peary

I was eight in 1957, when Shock Theater presented Universal Monster Movies on television, and only Psycho, three years later, ever scared me more than seeing Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, and all the sequels about brides, sons, daughters, and nephews, for the first time. Indeed, if I could have programmed a Halloween movie marathon back then to scare youngsters and adults in 2014, I would have picked those classics. But today, when such ferocious fare as The Walking Dead and American Horror Story are popular television shows, coming up with thirteen horror films that will please the I've-seen-everything-and-more crowd is a tricky proposition. Today's viewers get bored even before the blood on the screen dries, so my simple objective to keep everyone's eyes riveted on the screen even while frustrated trick-or-treaters bang on their doors. My tack is to mix past and present films, the violent and the humorous, the familiar and the unexpected. I have included five* films I write about in my new eBook Cult Horror Movies, and eight others. All good movies, none too barbaric. My Lucky Thirteen for Halloween:

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948): Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) wants to implant Costello's puny brain into the head of the Frankenstein Monster. Before the kids are sent to bed with their candy-induced tummy aches, allow them one movie treat, showing them one of the best comedy-horror films ever made. You'll like it, too. It's a great introduction to Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.). Universal's iconic monsters are scary, there's some nifty special effects and makeup, and the fab comedy team that saved the studio from bankruptcy is in top form.

The Night of the Demon* (1957): An American doctor (Dana Andrews) arrives in London to help a professor discredit a devil cult--only to discover that the professor is dead and that real witchcraft may have been responsible. This smart, tense, and sadly neglected British horror gem was scripted by frequent Hitchcock writer Charles Bennett (The 39 Steps) and directed by Val Lewton alum Jacques Tourneur (I Walked with a Zombie, Cat People). It has a fabulously sinister and erudite Hitchcockian villain (Niall MacGinnis) and scares us as Lewton did, with darkness and shadows, sudden sounds, and wild animals. As in Lewton films, science/reason and the supernatural have equal validity. The filmmakers were upset that the studio insisted on showing "the Demon." but it's such a spectacular creature that I'm glad it did.

The Scream of Fear (1961): A young woman in a wheelchair returns home to meet her stepmother for the first time and suspects that her missing father isn't away on a trip but has been murdered--in fact, she keeps seeing his corpse when no one else is around. This spooky sleeper from Hammer Studios features the lovely, ill-fated Susan Strasberg and the British studio's star Christopher Lee not playing a vampire or even a bad guy for a change. Numerous later movies have had similar plot twists, but the direction by Seth Holt (The Nanny) is imaginative and there are a few times when you'll be on the edge of your seat.

Night of the Living DeadNight of the Living Dead* (1968): A disparate group of scared people barricade themselves in a farmhouse as cannibalistic zombies terrorize the countryside. Although heavily influenced by Hitchcock's The Birds and Psycho, George A. Romero's cult classic was innovative and influential, anticipating and paving the way for today's zombie craze. Many films have since passed it on the gross-out meter, but it holds up very well. And it deserves credit for being, along with Romero's equally satirical The Crazies, the first horror film in which we Americans do battle not with aliens but each other.

Halloween* (1978): After fifteen years in an asylum for stabbing his sister to death, Michael Meyers escapes and returns home to Haddonfield, Illinois, dons a mask, and stalks three teenage girls on Halloween night. John Carpenter's seminal work would be the obvious choice for a Halloween marathon strictly because of its title, but these many years later it remains the scariest and most shrewdly directed of the teenager-in-peril slasher movies. In her debut, Jamie Lee Curtis deservedly became the cinema's "Scream Queen" as the attentive virginal babysitter Michael pursues, with her distracted-by-sex friends becoming collateral damage. A masked lunatic is needed in a Halloween movie festival, and I pick Michael over Jason of the Friday the 13th series because he's not just out to kill but, having missed his childhood, seems to be playing a very mischievous kids' game. Am I right in thinking that babysitters have charged outlandish fees since this movie came out?

An American Werewolf in London* (1981): After two likable young Americans are attacked and bitten by a werewolf while backpacking at night on the British moors, one (David Naughton) turns into a werewolf when there is a full moon and the other (Griffin Dunne) becomes a deteriorating corpse-ghost who tries to persuade his alive friend to commit suicide before he kills. From the opening moment when John Fogarty belts out "Bad Moon Rising" on the soundtrack, this is a wild ride, the best werewolf movie after 1941's The Wolf Man. There are great transformation scenes and Oscar-winning makeup by Rick Baker, and director John Landis deftly mixes terrifying moments (including the attack on the moors) with laugh-out-loud humor. Cult favorite Jenny Agutter is Naughton's love interest, and it's notable that Landis includes sex and violence but keeps them separate.

ScreamScream (1996): A year after her mother's murder, Sydney Prescott (Neve Cambell) realizes she could become the latest teen victim of whoever is driving up the body count in the small town of Woodsboro. Directed by Wes Craven and knowingly scripted by Kevin Williamson, this blockbuster revitalized the horror genre in the late 1990s by both paying tribute to the slasher film and revamping it. It's a sure-fire crowd pleaser because of its fun characters, super cast--Campbell, Courtney Cox and Dave Arquette would return for the sequels--hip dialogue, and horrific murders that do justice to their strong buildups. Remember: if you get a Halloween night call from someone asking What's your favorite scary movie, hang up.

Ringu (1998)/The Ring (2002): Teenagers die a week after watching a mysterious VHS video, spurring a female journalist to--big mistake--take a look. On Halloween, if you can't get hold of the Japanese original on dvd--don't accept a VHS copy!--watch the American version directed by Gore Verbinski and starring Naomi Watts, because it's just as unnerving. We grew up being scared of what lurked in our closets or underneath our beds, but that didn't prepare us to see what crawls out of the TV in this story. Be ready for chills to run along your spine.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006): In Spain in 1944, young Ofelia and her pregnant mother move into her vicious fascist stepfather's large house, and, while he hunts rebels in the area, she ventures into an ancient labyrinth, where she interacts with various mythical creatures and puts her life at risk. Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro's enchanting and frightening parable draws a connection between real-life and fantasy horror. In this unique film, Sergi Lopez is one of the cinema's vilest villains, and Ivan Baquera is as captivating a heroine as Alice. If she were in a Lewis Carroll story, Ofelia might get in trouble, but in a Del Toro film she might not even survive.

The HostThe Host (2006): An enormous, amphibious monster kills many civilians along the Han River and abducts a man's daughter, prompting him to search for her. The biggest box-office film in South Korean history barely was noticed in America because super-talented Bong Joon-ho (2014's Snowpiercer) was still an unknown director here. There's too much silly humor, but the scenes with the monster are thrilling and the monster is stupendous. The rescue scenes in the sewer recall the terrific fifties giant-ant movie, Them!

Paranormal Activity (2007): A couple feels a demonic presence in their new home, so they turn on cameras to record any unusual activity while they sleep. I think the creepy first film of a highly successful franchise ranks second to The Blair Witch Project among "found-footage" horror films, but it is perhaps the most efficient good horror movie ever made, providing a tremendous number chills for the few dollars spent. And Katie Featherston's totally credible performance is Oscar-worthy. It's such a nerve-wracking movie that maybe you'd better wake up those kids you sent to bed earlier because you won't want to watch it alone, particularly the shocking ending!

Let The Right One In (2008): A nice, lonely, bullied twelve-year-old boy befriends the mysterious new girl in his apartment complex, and soon realizes she's a vampire and responsible for a series of deaths in town. Just when we thought every vampire movie had been made Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's novel horror film turned up. It may be the most violent film ever with kids in the lead roles. The killings are gruesome, the atmosphere is icy, but this is a touching, tender, and very romantic art film. If you can't make out subtitles after watching twelve other films, the 2010 American version, Let Me In, with Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz is almost as good.

Four Great Novels That Can Be Called Post-Multicultural (Or Not)

Who We BeJeff Chang has spent the better part of his adult life analyzing and chronicling the role of race in America. The result is Who We Be, a compendium of essays, photos, lyrics, and other snippets that define, well, Who We Be. Here’s how he puts his thoughts in the book (below). And here is Chang’s list, exclusively for Amazon customers, on further reading on related topics.

When the legendary curator Thelma Golden wanted to name the generation of Black contemporary artists who came of age around the turn of the millennium, she jokingly called them "Post-Black," as in post-civil rights, post-Black Arts, and as she put it, "post-Basquiat and post-Biggie." Writers of that generation—you might call even call them part of the hip-hop generation—shared lots of things with Golden's visual artists. They were no less concerned than previous artists with legacies of race and racism, but they had a different relationship to identity. Their elders had dealt with invisibility. They were dealing with visibility. They were writing for audiences who knew all about affirmative action, diversity trainings, and "political correctness"—but were just as stumped at how to forge racial progress. These audiences knew what not to say to each other, but not what to say next. These novels capture the difficulty—and, just as often, the absurd hilarity—of the post-multicultural, post-whatever, post-post era we are living through.

 

POST TIME:
Identity in the New Millennium

But if I have to choose between
I choose me
—Erykah Badu, “Me”, New Amerykah Part One: (4th World War)

There was a joke that was everywhere at the turn of the millennium. It had started long before, among high-school friends, back when the saying was, “It’s a Black thing, you wouldn’t understand.” But this post-“Black thing” thing was much smaller than that, even more impenetrable, a sub-tribal sign.

The joke had begun with a group of Black guys at a diverse high school in West Philly. It first surfaced in a two-and-a-half minute film short Stone had made with some of those same friends, called True.

It opens with a shot of Stone lying on the couch watching a football game. The cordless rings and it’s his friend Paul, lying on his own couch watching a kung-fu flick.

“’Sup with you?”
“Nuttin’ man, just chillin’.”
“True, true.”

The other characters don’t do much either: Dookie draws comic book characters, Fred picks up the phone and buzzes his friend Porto Rock into the apartment. The dialogue amounts to maybe a dozen words, the most meaningful of which is simply “Wazzzaaaaauuuuuup?!” When each says it, he stretches out the “aaauuuuuuuuh,” wags his tongue, bobs his head, improvises his own stupid faces in his own way.

By the end, Paul has changed the channel to the game, and he and Charles watch together, still having a non-conversation conversation.

“So what’s goin’ on, B?”
“Chillin’. ’Sup with you?”
“Nuttin man, just chillin’.”

And that was it—a group of Black men at rest, not called upon to perform, just being who they be. The short was like what an anthropologist might call “thick description,” what a psychologist might call “the opposite of micro-aggression,” what a comedian might call great material. Years later, when director/actor Charles Stone III’s Whassup? commercial for Budweiser debuted in the 2000 Super Bowl, it seemed that millions were let in on the joke, too.

Multiculturalism had allowed artists of color to toy with the possibility of no longer having to play a role already scripted for them. After multiculturalism, they might move beyond the aesthetics of uplift and respectability, be freed from the burden of representing positivity or confirming oppression. They could aspire just to be. They might still choose to represent identity, race, difference, and inequality. But they wanted to consider it a choice.

“Individuality,” wrote the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote in his 2005 post-multiculturalism book The Ethics of Identity, “is not so much a state to be achieved as a mode of life to be pursued.”1

Stone had been a music-video director, making videos like A Tribe Called Quest’s Bonita Applebum and The Roots’s What They Do that had slyly subverted Black male stereotypes. By the late 1990s the industry was changing. This short was Stone’s bid for new work. He knew he had something good, so he took his time. He spent two years writing it, and one more to shoot and finish the edit. He debuted True at a music video short festival in the summer of 1999.

An Irish-born-and-raised copywriter at agency DDB Chicago named Vinny Warren spotted True at a festival and brought it to Budweiser. Stone had worried about how the ad would play in the real world. “When people do it and do it badly, it’s like some old Blaxploitation shit, like straight-up minstrel,” he said.

“True” required context and specificity to work. Saying “Wazzzaaaaauuuuuup?!” to each other was an act of recognition. I see you. You and I are together in this moment. The ad had to be made by a Black director featuring an all-Black cast. Stone knew there would still be objections that his concept was “niche market.” Warren’s Irishness, his foreign-ness, Stone felt, allowed him to understand the nuances and see the big picture.

They still needed to pitch the concept to all the confused marketers, casting agents, and execs. In those sessions, Stone decided to describe it in gendered terms. “Look, it’s really simple. It’s men holding hands through the phone,” he would tell them. “It talks about that wonderful nothingness that men do that is actually quite complicated.”

One day DDB execs told Stone they wanted to try out a “multicultural” cast. By this, they meant that they wanted to try white actors. Maybe it was progress that whites could now see themselves in the “multicultural” thing. But wasn’t that still kind of missing the point?

On the last day of casting, Stone and Warren asked to bring back four of the five actors from the original True cast, just to compare them to the “multicultural” cast. Stone recalled, “Sure enough, they were like, ‘What are we doing? We should just stay with the original cast.’”

And so Stone turned up the lighting, put bottles of Bud in each character’s hands, and further slashed an already haiku-length script into what would become the commercial called Whassup? At the end the word “true” rested over a Budweiser logo. Six months later, he and his homies were partying in Cannes after receiving the Grand Prix, the global ad industry’s top award.

Fred Thomas—Stone’s old buddy turned international star—told a British reporter, “It was strictly our thing. Strictly our clique.2 It never went all over Philadelphia. Now the whole world is part of our clique.” One of the Cannes judges agreed, “It’s not just an ad campaign, it’s a movement.”3 Who in the history of advertising could have predicted that a sixty-second spot featuring a group of bored Black males would become the first globally viral ad of the millennium?

The joke among friends had become a joke shared around the world. But what was the world seeing?

 

1Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton University Press, 2005), 5.
2Simon Hattenstone, “Whassup?”,Guardian, October 25, 2000, http://www.theguardian.com/print/0,,4081177-103680,00.html.
3Michael McCarthy, “Budweiser’s ‘Whassup?!’ TV Ads Claim Grand Prix in Cannes,” USA Today, June 26, 2000.

10 Songs: Greil Marcus and the Culture of Surprise

The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten SongsIf rock & roll has achieved institution status, Greil Marcus certainly qualifies as one of its pillars. As one of the most influential critics of rock music--a small and vital, club, to be sure--he has made a long, distinctive career by elevating an often disparaged form and placing it firmly (rightly) within the hierarchy of great art. In addition to his writing for the likes of Rolling Stone (he was its first reviews editor), Creem, and The Village Voice, Marcus has authored many books, often dealing with the idea that rock & roll is both a accelerant and amplifier of cultural memes, Narcissus and his reflection in one. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music, originally published in 1975, traced rock music's roots, evolution, and impacts--intuitive and otherwise--through the lives and careers of six epochal artists; TIME appointed it one of the 20th century's most influential nonfiction books. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century launches itself from the Sex Pistols and the punk scene of the 70s into an examination of heretics, rioters, and iconoclasts spanning Western civilization, across both time and geography. There are many more, occasionally academic, always incisive, and definitely fun.

In his latest--The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs--Marcus rambles the back roads of rock history to present  short biographies of 10 songs spanning the entire breadth of rock & roll, from doo-wop to post-punk, demonstrating how rock's impulse to combine (and recombine) its influences made each possible and entirely original. Two pieces of advice for readers: 1.) Unless your record collection is as expansive as Marcus's, have YouTube cued up so you can listen while you learn. 2.) Set "Shake Some Action" to repeat.

We asked Marcus for 10 songs that shaped his own rock & roll experience. Here's what he said.

 


 

Greil Marcus: 10 Songs

Rock & roll for me has always been a culture of surprise. When it’s at its best you never know what’s coming and you can’t wait to find out what it is—when all the music seems to be one great answer record, with everyone, performers, listenters, the radio, a club, even the background music in a supermarket or the foreground music in a restaurant part of the same conversation. That happens best on Quentin Tarantino soundtrack albums, which aren’t references to his movies but almost counter-works—from the neo-surf music in Reservoir Dogs to the creamy, sleazy pop on the two Kill Bill albums to Django Unchained, which is probably the best. But it can happen anywhere.

In the order they occurred to me:

Outkast, “Hey Ya!” (2003). As Lou Reed once said, when you first heard this song you felt as if you could listen to it forever—“And then you kind of had to.” But endless airplay didn’t wear the song out, it only revealed equally endless layers of play, emotion, and a life being lived: the cool comedy of the verses always falling into what seemed like the unalloyed joy of the chorus. And it was in the chorus that, after weeks, months, never, provided its own drama: the way the first “Hey ya” was nothing but a smile, the way the second pulled away from the first, with a dying fall of regret, loss, uncertainty, doubt. There is a whole history of American music in this song—minstrelsy, wild and fast L.A. doo-wop (the Jewels’ “Hearts of Stone,” the Hollywood Flames’ “Buzz Buzz Buzz”), Bob Dylan’s carnival sound (“I Want You”), Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”—and also prophecy: a sound and a feeling the Roots will probably always be looking for.

Bo Diddley, “Say Man” (1959). Even by 1959, after Little Richard, after “The Book of Love,” I didn’t understand how anything this ridiculous—so ridiculous it was, somehow, pure anarchy, an epistemological proof that neither government nor society did, in fact, exist—was allowed on the public air. Now, long after learning that this was just a Top 40 version of the dozens, of The Signifying Monkey, of a harmless African-American insult ritual going back to forever, I still don’t.

Greil Marcus

Rolling Stones, “Gimmie Shelter” (1969). It’s been on the radio for 45 years and hasn’t lost anything. It’s kept up the with times, or the times are still chasing it. And I knew that would be the story from the first time I heard it.

Kingston Trio, “Tom Dooley” (1958). For me, proof that music—the language everyone was speaking, that everyone though was sufficient to say whatever needed to be said—could change overnight. The day before, whatever was on the radio sounded just right. The day after, it sounded old, tired, and fake. The same thing happened with “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Hockey “Song Away” (2009). I heard it sitting outside a shoe store in Minneapolis. I caught a few words, maybe the title phrase, but mostly a smile that I couldn’t get out of my head. Thanks to the internet, I could track it down and play it a dozen times in a row. I still couldn’t get it out of my head. Whenever I think about it, I still can’t. That’s what rock & roll is for.

 

Portrait by Rich Black based on the original photo by Thierry Arditti

The Rules of the Handshake

I Stand Corrected Lots of people dream about doing the kinds of things Eden Collinsworth does routinely in her life: change jobs, move countries, strike out for parts unknown both internal and external. In the form of an etiquette guide, I Stand Corrected – excerpted below -- is both a cultural analysis of East-West relations and a witty memoir of a very unconventional life.


In 1985, I received an invitation from a delegation of Chinese businessmen offering me the opportunity to see Shenzhen. It was the height of China's policy of economic Opening Up, and this former fishing village had grown into a booming metropolis constructed with what looked to be gigantic Lego pieces. At the time, I was a book publisher. I was also young, fair- skinned and redheaded; and so, when I arrived in Shenzhen, it was easy for the Chinese to believe I might have come not from America, but from another planet entirely.

"What do you mean he's asked how much I am?" was my stunned question to the associate acting as my translator at a business dinner for which I was the host.

"Just that," he told me.

All at the table had been imbibing a great deal; it was not without reason that I asked my colleague if the man inquiring was sober. "He seems to be," was the answer.

"Have you correctly translated?" I asked? "Surely he's asked how much it would cost to buy the company we represent," I said.

"No. He means the cost for you, as a woman," reiterated my colleague. "Our guest has just inquired about taking permanent possession of you." Latching on to whatever composure had not already abandoned me, I pointed out that I was not just a woman, I was also the president of an American book publishing company. "One who happens to be the host this evening," I made clear.

"I can translate what you've just said," volunteered my colleague. "But it won't matter."

"Why not?" I wanted to know.

"Because he believes that your gender makes your professional rank insupportable."

And there it was. A full-in-the-face statement, which forced upon me the irrefutable difference between my self-image and my status in China where, at the time, I was Western luxury item possibly to be purchased.

"What would you like me to tell him?" asked my colleague.

It took a moment to realize that it wasn't so much that I needed to surrender my self-image as that I should consider suspending it. Making a bottom line calculation with that in mind, I responded with falsehoods calibrated to avoid embarrassment.

"First, thank him for his interest," I instructed my colleague. "Next, tell him I'm extremely flattered. And then let him know that, sadly, I belong to someone else."

That face-saving response—and others like it—enabled my many years of doing business in China, during which course I witnessed the nation's profound transformation. But, long after committing to advance gender equality there, it seems to me that the Communist Party has underestimated resistance from their nation's culture, a culture that remains rooted in a traditionally Confucian society.

Eden Collinsworth

Only after living in China did I understand how women there struggle to break through the encased male-dominated work environment, not just in circumstantial ways but in the far more complex ways that have to do with self-belief. Very few possess the emotional and financial resources required to brave the tide of political, social, and parental waves pushing them toward marriage.

Hengnu, or "leftover woman," is a term China's Ministry of Education has added to its official lexicon. It describes an urban professional woman over the age of twenty-seven. For those slow in understanding the implications, the prefix sheng is the same as in the word shengcai, or "leftover food."

Setting its own action-oriented time line that delineates exactly when women become stale, the Communist Party provides instruction by age groups. At twenty-five, women must "fight" and "hunt" for a partner. If not married by twenty- eight, women are pressured to "triumph against the odds." Between thirty-one and thirty-four, still-unmarried women are referred to as "advanced leftovers," and by thirty-five, a single woman is the "ultimate" leftover, spiritually flawed in thinking she is higher than the mandate of marriage.

That being the case, Li Ping, a young woman I came to admire in Beijing, was spiritually flawed. Ping was a decent, well-educated, hardworking woman who had made a fortune launching a portfolio of magazines. She had proved herself an astute businesswoman and, by all Western accounts, a great success, but during a revealing conversation in the backseat of her chauffeur-driven car while stalled in Beijing traffic, Ping told me that her younger sister was more successful in the "important way."

"Why would you think that?" I asked.

"It's not what I think, it's what I know. My sister is married, and I am not. I am shaming my parents."

Ping's punishing words spoke of the worst kind of self-judgment, and it was difficult for me to understand the irrational degree to which she was holding her self-esteem in abeyance until she was married. Still, her plight was not without claims on my sympathy. At one time, I, too, would have been an "advanced leftover."

Eventually, I married, having fallen in love with a man in my own country. When I did, I gave myself away to him for free.

How I Wrote It: Walter Isaacson, on "The Innovators"

Isaacson"We don’t often focus on how teamwork is key to innovation," says Walter Isaacson, whose new book explores the overlooked collaborations and breakthroughs that would eventually give us the personal computer and the Internet. 

In The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, one of our Best Books of the Month, Isaacson shows how lone geniuses like Steve Jobs (the subject of his bestselling 2011 biography) didn't single-handedly create the digital age in which we now live.

[*Scroll down to see a video of Isaacson discussing The Innovators.]

Tell me about the the origins of The Innovators

I began working on this book almost fifteen years ago. It grew out of my fascination with the innovations I’d been part of when I ran digital media for Time Inc. and also from my biography of Benjamin Franklin, who was an inventor, publisher, postal service pioneer, and all-around information networker and entrepreneur. Plus I was an electronics geek as a kid (my father and two uncles were electrical engineers), and I loved soldering circuits, sorting transistors, and building ham radios (WA5JTP). I realized, leaving aside Al Gore jokes, that I didn’t even know how the Internet had been invented. My initial plan was to focus on that. But when I interviewed Bill Gates, he convinced me that the simultaneous emergence of the Internet and the personal computer made for a richer tale. I put this book on hold early in 2009, when I began working on a biography of Steve Jobs. But his story reinforced my interest in how the development of the Internet and computers intertwined.

InnovatorsHow is this book different from your previous books?

I wanted to step away from doing biographies, which tend to emphasize the role of singular individuals, and once again do a book like The Wise Men, which I had coauthored with a colleague about the creative teamwork of six friends who shaped America’s cold war policies.

We don’t often focus on how teamwork is key to innovation. There are thousands of books celebrating people we biographers portray, or mythologize, as lone inventors. I’ve produced a few myself. Search the phrase “the man who invented” on Amazon and you get 1,860 book results. But we have far fewer tales of collaborative creativity, which is actually more important in explaining how today’s technology revolution happened. It can also be more interesting.

What’s the first line and what does it say about the book?

"The computer and the Internet are among the most important inventions of our era, but few people know who created them.” It conveys that I don’t want merely to generalize about innovation. We talk so much about innovation these days that it has become a buzzword, drained of clear meaning. Instead, I set out to report on how the most important dozen or so innovations of the digital age actually happened and to tell the tales of the people who created them. What ingredients produced their creative leaps? What skills proved most useful? How did they think and collaborate? Why did some succeed and others fail?

Tools

I’m a gadget freak. I use an iPhone and a Blackberry and sometimes a Samsung smartphone. I have a MacBook Air and a Dell PC and an iPad. I like to be able to write and research on any of them, wherever I am. So one of my most useful tools is Dropbox, which allows me to summon from the vasty cloud any of my documents, interviews, drafts, and outlines on any device, anywhere, anytime.

Soundtrack

New Orleans funk -- Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Wynton Marsalis, Jon Batiste.

How do you relax and recharge?

Long swims to clear my mind.

Research

I love combining archival research with doing my own interviews. There are historians who are better than I am at mining archives and journalists who are better at pursuing reporting leads, but I like to combine both approaches. I’m lucky that I’ve known and been gathering string on most of the players in the digital revolution over the years--ever since my days at Time in the 1980s and 1990s when we put many of them on the cover--and I can get them to sit down with me. I also love to ferret out the academic papers, journals, and oral histories as well as go see the actual artifacts, such as Colossus at Bletchley Park, Charles Babbage’s reconstructed engine at London’s Science Museum, the Mark I at Harvard, and the delightful cornucopia at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

What surprised you?

The important role of women in the digital revolution, from Ada Lovelace to Grace Hopper to Jean Jennings. They deserve more recognition.

~

> See all of Walter Isaacson's books

~

Chasing Paper: The Debt Collection Underground

Bad Paper“Creditors have better memories than debtors.” --Benjamin Franklin

Everyone knows about collections agencies, but how they actually operate is much more interesting than you probably think. Falling somewhere between Glengarry Glen Ross and Mean Streets, Jake Halpern's Bad Paper introduces us to an economy spanning many shades of gray. Halpern's book tracks the descent of "paper" (spreadsheets containing the information of millions of debtors and their debts) as it's sold for pennies on the dollar by banks and credit companies and passed through a network of collectors. Files are often bought and sold multiple times, each transaction stripping away the best remaining prospects as collectors wring paper dry through all manners of persuasion and coercion. Along the way, Halpern encounters first-hand the game's players, from the financiers at the top of the pyramid to mid-level "brokers" and the ground-level phone-jockeys; these are all hard men within their contexts, as one tale of a Tarantino-grade stand-off over stolen information attests. This book is unexpected, and unexpectedly fun.

Read these short biographies of some of the Bad Paper's most interesting players, and check out our Q&A with Halpern below. Bad Paper is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month.

 


 Bad Paper's Cast of Characters by Author Jake Halpern

Aaron Siegel: Private Equity Fund Founder

“All of a sudden, you’re swimming in waters you didn’t really want to swim in – never would have conceived you’d be swimming in.” -- Aaron Siegel

Aaron is a banker who made a big gamble. In 2008, he purchased well over a billion dollars worth of unpaid credit card accounts for pennies on the dollar. What he bought, essentially, were just spreadsheets with names, addresses, phone numbers, and balances of debtors. All went well until some of those accounts were stolen and vanished into the debt underworld. Luckily Aaron had someone to call – a fixer named Branson Wilson who knew just what to do. (See below.)

Brandon Wilson: Debt Broker & Fixer

“I will come back down here, I will take your server, I will burn your agency to the ground, I will come to your house and burn it down, and then I will come back here and burn this store down. Understand?” – Brandon Wilson

Brandon Wilson is a former armed robber who now runs his own collection agency and debt brokerage firm. He also serves as Aaron’s emissary to the collections industry’s many unsavory precincts.

Shafeeq: Debt Collector & Security Specialist

“I can go and shoot a person—an intruder, at your house—and it would be a lot easier to do something like that with the security contract in place. Whereas if I’m just showing up at your house, and I shoot somebody, now there’s a lot more, you know, paperwork.” – Shafeeq

Shafeeq runs one of the collection agencies that Aaron hires to “work” his paper. He is a devout Muslim, who tries to avoid charging interest whenever possible. Shafeeq also runs his own security firm and is licensed to carry a firearm.

Jimmy: Debt Collector from the East Side of Buffalo

“Back when he ran up into my office with that gun, I’ll tell you what, it felt good. My adrenaline was pumping. I wanted to shoot him.” -- Jimmy

After going to jail, Jimmy turned his back on crime and reinvented himself as a debt collector. Even so, sometimes his past catches up with him.

Larry: A Debt Broker Based in Buffalo

“Certain things you don’t want to know, because once you know something, then you become an accessory to it or responsible—so it’s just better not to know, because most of the dealings on the level that we’re on, they’re not legitimate.” – Larry

Larry worked as a debt broker for years and is now trying to make a living as an artist.

Theresa: Debtor

“There are a thousand ways to rip off desperate people. The more desperate you are, and the less you have, the easier it is.” - Theresa

Theresa is a former Marine who fell hopelessly into debt when her marriage ended badly. She paid $2,700 to collectors who claimed to own her debt and then never heard from them again.

 


 

Bad Paper author Jake HalpernQuestions and Answers with Jake Halpern

 

On the surface, debt collection doesn’t seem like the most scintillating topic. How did you get involved with this story?

I know this sounds odd, but this book owes it existence to two people: my mother and Brad Pitt. It began with my mom. She started getting calls from a debt collector over a debt that she didn’t even owe. So I started investigating the debt collections industry and discovered that my hometown – Buffalo, N.Y. – was one of the epicenters. I ended up writing a profile about a collector, from Buffalo, for The New Yorker. After the article comes out, I get a call from Brad Pitt’s producer, telling me that he wants to turn the story into a TV series with HBO. I was shocked. But he was serious. So I end up traveling back to Buffalo, with the screenwriter, and we stay at my parents' house. It was surreal. The screenwriter is staying up on the third floor and my dad and his wife are making meals for him in the kitchen. Anyway, my job on this trip is to line up some interesting people for the screenwriter to meet, so his script feels authentic. Back when I was doing my story for The New Yorker, no one wanted to talk with me. Now, all of a sudden, I am doing a project with “Brad,” and people are tripping over themselves to talk. One night, the screenwriter and I go out to dinner with a banker and a former armed robber who had gone into business with one another. They tell me an incredible tale. They purchased $1.5 billion worth of bad debt for pennies on the dollar. Their aim was to make a fortune. All goes well on this unlikely venture until some of the debt is stolen and the former armed robber must delve into an underworld where debt is bought and sold on street corners. This quest ends in a showdown with guns in the inner city of Buffalo, N.Y. Needless to say, I was hooked on their story.

What was the most unexpected turn the story took?

There were a bunch of unexpected turns. My favorite involved a character named Shafeeq, who was a smart, charming, gun-toting, black, Muslim polygamist. He is a rather minor character in my story, actually, but he played a pivotal role in one dramatic scene – the showdown with guns – and so I really wanted his perspective. I tried to get him to talk for well over two years, but he refused. Then one day he tells me that he will talk, if I travel to Buffalo and meet him at his mosque on the East Side of Buffalo. So I go. I show up at the mosque at sundown and, almost immediately, this very aggressive panhandler accosts me. Then out of the shadows of the mosque steps Shafeeq. He is ENORMOUS, roughly six and a half feet tall, and weighing more than 300 pounds. The panhandler skedaddles and Shafeeq leads me into his mosque, which is situated in a beautiful old church. We talk for the next three hours. During this time, he give me one of my favorite quotes from the book, which is an impassioned defense of polygamy. He claims that, by being a good father figure to many children in the African American community in Buffalo, he is a powerful force for good, because is modeling good behavior on an exponential level. “You’re Xeroxing righteousness,” he tells me. It’s one of those little, kind of random moments that is just so bizarre, fascinating, and memorable.

The book is filled with rough-around-the-edge characters doing some shady things. Was there any moment you felt uncomfortable, or even at risk?

Just once. I was in the car with a former cocaine dealer, named Jimmy, who had reinvented himself as debt collector. We were on the East Side of Buffalo, which is poor and crime-ridden. Suddenly, Jimmy slams on the brakes, bolts out of the car, and leaves me sitting there for the better part of ten minutes. When he finally returns to the car, Jimmy tells me that he had just spotted a guy he knew, who had recently pulled a gun on him. Jimmy had apparently chased after him but not found him. At that moment, Jimmy was shaking with rage. I just sat there in the car with him, saying nothing while he regained his composure. It was a tense few minutes.

You describe some of the collectors engaging in some dubious practices in order to collect on debt, especially where it comes to taking advantage of debtors’ ignorance (with regard to collection law and their rights) and collector tactics such as bullying. Do you expect reform in this business, and do you hope your book plays a part?

I do hope things change. In 2015, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will be issuing new rules that will – hopefully – change the way the consumer debt is bought, sold, and collected upon. And yes, I am hopeful that my book may help shed some small amount of light on the seedier corners of the industry. But ultimately, the ability of the CFPB to clean up this industry will also hinge on policing. Currently it is policing about 175 of the biggest agencies in the business. Yet according to recent industry estimates, there are well over 9,000 collection businesses in America. That’s a lot of ground to cover. So I am hopeful, but I am also doubtful that the industry will be fixed overnight.

Name three of your most influential writers or books.

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession by David Grann. Grann is a superb nonfiction writer. The number of amazing stories he finds, on a regular basis, is mind-blowing.

Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover. Conover is simply the best reporter I have ever encountered.

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson. This is a swashbuckling adventure tale involving Vikings. I love Vikings.

Next project, or current obsession?

I am weirdly interest in jailbird lawyers. I like the idea that there are a few prisoners who have studied the law, become erudite, and are helping work on cases. I am currently scouting out a story involving one of them.

In addition to your nonfiction, you co-authored a couple of well-received young adult novels. How’s that different? Do you plan more?

This is true. The biggest difference here – other than the fact that I write about haunted woods and iceberg fortresses – is that I co-write the books with my friend Peter Kujawinski. We wrote the first book in our Dormia series in 2009. Around that time, I was living on Navajo Reservation in northwestern New Mexico, which remains one of the most remote and sparsely settled regions in the continental United States. From my desk, in our tiny ranch house, I watched prairie dogs frolic and tumbleweed blow across the street. Meanwhile, my co-author – Peter – was serving as an American diplomat in Paris. His environs could not have been more radically different. Peter, known simply as “Kujo” by friends and family alike, inhabited a sprawling three-bedroom penthouse with stunning views of the Eiffel Tower. What united us, however, is that we were both twelve-year-olds at heart and wanted to make up imaginary worlds involving magical cities nestled in the mountains. So we started writing the Dormia series. And we just signed a two-book deal with Putnam / Penguin to start a new series. The first book, Nightfall, should be out in about a year.

Video: Ken Burns on the Making of "The Roosevelts"

RooseveltsKen Burns is known for telling epic stories about events and achievements in American history, from Prohibition to the Civil War to baseball. But rarely has he focused on personal history as he does in his latest documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, which profiles the entwined, influential lives of Theodore, Eleanor, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Burns recently visited us at Amazon to discuss the seven-part series, which began airing on PBS in September and is available on DVD and Blu-ray. (The series is accompanied by a book of the same name, written with Geoffrey Ward).

"If these people really did influence us more than any other family--and I can make that argument--we want to know where they came from," Burns told me during our interview. "Their empathy is borne of certain sufferings that they each experienced ... They're all wounded people."

Hollywood, Behind the Camera

Hollywood Frame by FrameThe following is excerpted from Hollywood Frame by Frame: The Unseen Silver Screen in Contact Sheets, 1951-1997.

Introduction, by Author Karina Longworth

In the pre-digital era, contact sheets offered a quick, visual summary of a photo shoot, and photographers, editors, and even subjects would make marks directly on the printed contact sheet pages to signify which images should be printed (and which absolutely shouldn't), how they should be cropped, and whether or not more shooting was needed. Once a frame of film was exposed, it couldn't be deleted, so contact sheets always include "mistakes" -- moments which the photographer, or the subject, may not want anyone to see. The contact sheets in Hollywood Frame by Frame are interesting for all of these reasons, and more. Most movie stars are given approval over which images of themselves are used for publicity purposes, and from the 1950s through the 1970s, the key way stars approved images was by making marks on contact sheets. Publicity departments, too, would use contact sheets to select the right, and wrong, ways to present the images representing a specific film or star. In allowing a glimpse into which images of stars like Grace Kelly, Cary Grant and James Dean commercially useful and which weren't, these contact sheets tell stories about how star personas are invented, while also exposing aspects of the individual celebrities' personalities which the entire industry of celebrity myth-making usually tries to squeeze out. 

 

Breakfast at Tiffany's
Breakfast at Tiffany's (Paramount/The Kobal Collection/Howell Conant)
 
Bus Stop
Bus Stop (Archive Photos/Getty Images)
 
Giant
Giant (© Sid Avery/mptvimages.com)
 
Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar (Photo by Peter Stackpole/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
 
Once Upon a Time in the West
Once Upon a Time in the West (Photo by Bill Ray/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
 
Raging Bull
Raging Bull (Christine Loss)
 
Rear Window
Rear Window (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
 

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

November 2014

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
            1
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30