Monday, February 9, 2009

My name is Ira, and I am a pretentious reader.

So I’m riding the stationary bike at the gym the other day, listening to Django Reinhardt and reading Virginia Woolf, and it occurs to me that I could very easily be taken for a pretentious twat.

I do not believe myself to be a pretentious twat, but I have to admit that there could be reasonable grounds for that assumption. I am terribly self-conscious about my public literary consumption. If I know that I am going to be reading in a setting where I might be seen – the gym, for instance, or a city bus – I take care to choose a book that will reflect well on my taste.

Yes, I’m the guy on the train with his nose buried in William Faulkner’s Soldier’s Pay or Robertson DaviesFifth-Business. I don't think these choices are genuinely pretentious because these are the kind of novels and authors that I genuinely enjoy. If you see me poring through Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, it’s not because I want to show off my highbrow tastes. It’s because I want to see if Cather’s lesser-known work lives up to the spare beauty of My Antonia. (Answer in this case: not so much.)

Still, though, I worry that my attempts at keeping up appearances sometimes get the better of me. I read Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon a few years back - certainly no great work of literature, but quite enjoyable and eminently readable. Surely there’s nothing wrong with devoting a summer’s week to the overwritten antics of Hannibal Lecter and friends, right? And yet I only dared crack the pages of Red Dragon while hidden away in my apartment, safe from the leering eyes of strangers. On my lunch breaks at work, I substituted Knut Hamsun’s far more cerebral Hunger.

Now how likely is it that anyone wandering past the bench outside PJ’s Coffee & Tea on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans would have glanced down at me and thought, “What a bright and studious young man he must be, to devote his break time to a classic of Scandinavian existentialism”? Conversely, what are the chances a passerby would have noted my engagement with Thomas Harris and thought, “Pfft, just another sheep blowing his brain cells on a bloated best-seller”? In both cases, I’d say slim to none. And even if my hypothetical observer did exist, what should his or her opinion matter to me?

Quite a lot, apparently. The cold, weird fact is that I have consistently allowed a mythical notion of public opinion to impact my choice of reading material. It goes at least as far back as middle school, where I scoffed at teachers’ suggestions of Gary Paulsen and Judy Blume and instead immersed myself in Ken Kesey and Ernest Hemingway. Sure, the themes these authors dealt with far outstripped my sheltered, pre-teen psyche, but I genuinely enjoyed their stories. Just as important, they fed my burgeoning sense of superiority over my less advanced peers. Hm… In hindsight, that sounds like the thought process of a pretentious twat.

It has its down sides, this elitism of mine. At age 30, I’ve never read a book by Stephen King, John Grisham, Michael Crichton or most of my era’s other best-selling authors. I’m left out of conversations about The Lovely Bones and The Kite Runner, just because I can’t bear to be seen reading a book that’s available at my local Starbucks. I was recently mildly embarrassed to read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at the gym. You’d think I’d have no worries about being spotted with a universally acknowledged masterpiece by one of my favorite novelists of all time, but I feared I’d be taken for a bandwagon-jumper who’d picked the book up because of press coverage and the brooding photo of Viggo Mortenson on the cover. At least my edition didn’t have the dreaded Oprah seal of approval.

I acknowledge that I have a problem. I am fully aware that this is neither a normal nor a rational handling of my literary life. But I can’t see myself changing anytime soon. In fact, I’m not sure that I want to. The world needs pretentious twats like me, if only to set a bad example. And I’m working my way through some phenomenal books, so it’s hard for me to feel too bad.

So if you spot a guy at your local gym pedaling furiously with To the Lighthouse propped up in his sweaty palm, that might be me. It’s probably best if you just ignore me. I don’t need the encouragement.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Cult classics: Four artists who flirted with godhood

Plenty of artists can claim devoted cult followings, but only a few have stirred up genuine religious fervor in their fan bases. If one accepts the notion that there’s a touch of the Christ complex lurking behind just about every artistic endeavor, then the musical messiahs on this list were merely fulfilling their destinies. Eric Clapton may have inspired fans to call him God, but these folks actually made people believe it.

Charles Manson

America’s best-known cult leader of modern times was once just another struggling songwriter on the San Francisco scene, albeit one with a knack for speaking to power. Bitten by the musical bug during one of his many stints behind bars, young Charles Manson headed for California in 1967 with dreams of rock stardom. His mystical lyricism and creepy carriage played well with certain segments of the hippie brain trust, earning him words of praise from the likes of Neil Young and The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson.

Manson briefly worked his way into a permanent houseguest position at Wilson’s estate, bringing with him some ragged neophytes who would eventually form the base of his infamous “family.” He made a few attempts at recording with producer Terry Melcher, both in the studio and on location at Manson’s Spahn Ranch compound outside of L.A., but the singer’s erratic behavior quickly soured the deal. The pinnacle of Manson’s musical career came when The Beach Boys recorded his song “Cease to Exist” (re-titled “Never Learn Not to Love”) for their 20/20 album in late 1968. The song was attributed solely to Dennis Wilson, which inspired death threats from Manson.

Less than a year later, his devotees’ murderous rampage solidified his place as a very different kind of cultural icon. The Melcher-Manson album was eventually released under the title LIE as a quick cash-in during the clan’s highly publicized 1970 murder trial, bringing Manson’s musical odyssey to a bizarre full circle.

Father Yod and Yahowa 13

If Yahowa 13 wasn’t real, active group, their story would read like a played-out hippie cliché. Yahowa 13 was originally the house band for the Source Family, a California-based commune founded in the late ‘60s by a decorated WWII veteran, martial arts enthusiast and sometime actor known as Father Yod. Father Yod was an early adherent to the “natural living” movement of the 1950s, an ethos that inspired him to open the vegetarian restaurant that would fund his sect. For a period in the early ‘70s, the Source Restaurant became the hip eatery for liberal-leaning Hollywood types.

The restaurant’s daily receipts were more than enough to support Yod’s ever-growing family of hippies, including three musicians who called themselves Djin, Octavious and Sunflower Aquarian. Performing under the name Yahowa 13, the Aquarians took a wholly improvisational approach to rock, recording entire albums of psychedelic jams without so much as rehearsing. These limited-press albums were sold at the restaurant for a dollar apiece and have become highly sought-after trophies for collectors.

After Father Yod’s death in a hang-gliding accident – one of the hippiest causes of death possible – the Source Family disbanded and Yahowa 13 more or less retired. But don’t despair, fans of psych-rock and benevolent religious cults! The group recently reunited for an album (2008’s outstanding Sonic Portation) and a tour dedicated to spreading Father Yod’s teachings. So, you’ve got your charismatic leader, your veggie restaurant, your oddly named acolytes, your psychedelic rock and your undying spirit force. Throw in an undercover narc or two, and you’ve pretty much covered the gamut of Love Era stereotypes.

Elvis Presley

By all accounts a good Christian lad (even if a little lax on the whole gluttony thing), Elvis never sought religious adulation in his lifetime. That didn’t stop the more extreme elements of his fan base from tossing him up the heavenly flagpole once The King left the proverbial building. In the 30-plus years since his passing, a number of Elvis-based cults have cropped up around the world.

Most of these religions toe the line between sincere and tongue-in-cheek. The website for the First Presbyterian Church of Elvis, for instance, cites a list of “31 Holy Items” necessary for proper Elvis worship, including Brown ‘n’ Serve hot rolls and banana pudding (made fresh each night). The First Church of Jesus Christ, Elvis superimposes Elvis’ face onto classic religious portraits and sings the scriptural praises of the “Lord of Hostess.”

Still, the playful nature of Elvis worship hasn’t stopped anti-cult and pro-Elvis groups from warning against the phenomenon, and there have been more than a couple of scholarly studies about the parallels between Elvis adoration and more established religions. Could it be that Ed Sullivan’s censors were really on to something fifty years ago? Maybe all of that seductive hip-shaking truly did disguise a more sinister purpose.

Fela Kuti

His separatism was grounded more in politics than religion, but in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Fela Kuti was all things to a lot of people in Africa and beyond. The Afrobeat pioneer reportedly had a political awakening after meeting Black Panther Party members during a 1969 American tour. Upon returning to his native Nigeria, Kuti began transforming his estate into the Kalakuta Republic, a commune that would serve as home base for his rapidly growing entourage.

This unorthodox development caught the attention of the nation’s oppressive regime. As raids and harassment by the military became increasingly common, Kuti became all the more defiant. Over the years, he took up the mantle of “Chief Priest,” declaring the Kalakuta Republic a sovereign nation, renaming the compound’s night club “The Shrine” and taking 27 brides in one massive ceremony.

In 1977, the government grew frustrated with repeated failures to frame and discredit Kuti and stormed the compound with more than 1000 troops, killing Kuti’s elderly mother, destroying all of his musical facilities and burning the Republic to the ground. Unbowed, he founded his own political party and attempted to run for President in 1978. By the time of his AIDS-related death in 1997, Fela Kuti was enshrined in the minds of many Africans as a transcendent figure of righteousness, moving from cult leader to something closer resembling a full-blown religious icon.