August 20, 2010

The Eyes Have It: Harold Bell Wright’s novel The Eyes of the World

Literary Deadheads may recall that David Dodd first wrote about Harold Bell Wright’s 1914 novel The Eyes of the World on his web site, The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, which preceded his fine book of the same topic (see p. 203 of that book for a print reference to Wright’s book and its offshoots). One interesting recent find in the Grateful Dead Archive is a splendid copy of that tome, inscribed to the band’s founding archivist Eileen Law by Deadheads Kim and Bob Hilton of Bar Harbor, Maine. (It is available now as a Google book and in a modern reprint edition.)

Bell’s book is interesting to Dead scholars for indirect, even oblique, reasons—but those reasons lead to themes that are in fact central to the scholarly study of the band as a cultural, historical, artistic phenomenon.

The novel takes place largely in Southern California, focusing on an unlikely friendship between an older novelist and a young painter. The novelist is enormously successful but considers his work corrupt, debased because of its appeal to popular, prurient tastes; he cuts a Faustian figure in the book, constantly goading and chiding his young apprentice but leavening his mordancy with occasional flashes of calm meditation on the meaning of art and the role of the artist in society. It is a frank statement about the Romantic ideal of the purity of art, and the dangers of being seduced by mammon.

That frankness is what jars most—Bell’s six previous novels had been savaged by the critics (nor has his reputation improved with time), and The Eyes of the World reads like one long, tendentious response to those critics. (See the entry on Wright in Wikipedia for some of those critical dismissals, including particularly pointed—and mordantly funny—attacks singling out this book as his worst.) But the philosophy put forth in the book—of not pandering to popular, vulgar tastes, of honoring the muse as the only way to earn immortality—is at heart a classic expression of the Romantic, bohemian ideal that later defined the hippie milieu which birthed the Dead, and certainly describes their own attitude to their music. (Bell even opens the book with an epigram from Wordsworth.)

The title of the book is a phrase that the older novelist uses when admonishing the young painter: “the eyes of the world” here means the shallow, superficial, easily misled impressions of the public, not the deep, universal awareness that Hunter’s use of the phrase describes in his lyric. Still, the myriad interconnections between the book and the song make comparing them a revealing exercise. Students interested in how the Dead’s art fits into broader arcs in American cultural history will find Bell’s novel an intriguing, if didactic, expression of the debate over high and low culture at the turn of the century. And for those interested in exploring Hunter’s extraordinary mindscape, the way these themes find expression and perdure in a phrase whose literary function changed so dramatically over time is especially fascinating.

August 17, 2010

Altamont Revisited: Two Recent Views

Both the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones were tarred by their association with Altamont, the notorious free concert held December 6, 1969, at the Altamont Speedway east of the San Francisco Bay. The accusations and counter-charges have swirled since that night, when a perfect storm of bad planning and other factors produced a concert that was a nightmare for many—and perhaps most—attendees.

Captured by the Maysles Brothers for their documentary Gimme Shelter, the Stones concert was marred by repeated brawls and clashes between the Hell’s Angels and audience members and even Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane, who played before the Stones. The violence culminated in the murder of Meredith Hunter, who allegedly flashed a gun and was quickly surrounded by Angels, beaten, and finally stabbed to death by Alan Pasarro, a member (or prospective member) of the Angels’ Oakland chapter. A trial ended in an acquittal.

The Dead did not play, but were blamed by many for suggesting the Angels serve as security and for encouraging the idea of a free concert generally. In the aftermath, the Dead picked up the Stones’ tour manager, Sam Cutler, and Robert Hunter wrote a brilliant lyric reflecting on the meaning of the event, “New Speedway Boogie,” which Garcia put to music and the band recorded for Workingman’s Dead.

Cutler’s recent biography, You Can’t Always Get What You Want, was just donated to the Dead Archive as part of Dennis McNally’s magnificent research archive and library; the warm inscription from Cutler (and McNally’s thoughtful marginalia) make this a prized book in the collection.

Rock fans and Dead scholars will find much of the book fascinating reading, and Cutler’s prose—and perspective—is thoughtful, and thought-provoking; it is a fine rock memoir, even if his own account of Altamont is not apt to change many minds. His view is vital, however, and he adds several twists on the story, including allegations of mob involvement that echo later developments in parts of the recording industry.

And in a genre in which ghost writers and vapidity are the norm, Cutler’s prose—which is his own—stands head and shoulders above most. He is a survivor, and his epigram—a poem he wrote in 1974—is a powerful statement about many of the themes he weaves together in his meditation on a career largely defined by his work first for the Stones, and then for the Dead:

Every day
We murder our dreams;
Then pick them up,
Dust them down,
Adjust their silly hats upon their heads,
Kiss them on the cheeks,
And tell them how glad we are
That they’re still alive.

Less useful, though prettier, is Let It Bleed: The Rolling Stones, Altamont, and the End of the Sixties, a glossy coffeetable book that documents Altamont and the tour that preceded it. Cowritten by a photographer on the tour, Ethan A. Russell, it credits eleven members of the tour with providing interviews, suggests that several had never spoken of the events until this book, and positions itself as the untold, and possibly final, word on the Altamont disaster.

The pictures make for a remarkable story, certainly, but the amount of text generated then and since on the concert, and the records of a full murder trial for Pasarro, mean that a thorough history of the event remains to be told.

Still, fans who have wondered about the events leading up to Altamont, and the nature of the rock touring industry on the cusp of radical change, will find much to engage them here.