Ten Reasons to Buy: Based on a True Story: A Memoir


Number Ten: Norm Macdonald appears to have had no career advancing goals in the writing of this book. Most artists use the memoir as a vehicle to promote their career, and the idea that while they may appear to be a little quirky to the naked eye, deep in their heart, they are actually a very wonderful person. No matter how apathetic, somewhat cruel, and insensitive an author of such material is, the unspoken rule of such comedy is that the author break down the fourth wall, in some manner, to let the audience in on the joke. Norm Macdonald, the character that he has created for this book, and all of the layers in between do not appear to care that the reader regard him as a wonderful, compassionate, good guy. Most authors that approach a style similar to the book, qualify their motivations for doing what they did with follow ups that redound to the benefit of the author. Norm Macdonald does not appear to care why the reader bought his book, about their outlook on him, or if that reader feels good about themselves, and their world, when they have finished the book.

There are no politics in this book, in other words. Norm Macdonald appears to feel no need to convince us that he is actually very smart, savvy, or anything more than he is. There are no subtle approaches to politics that inform the audience that Norm is compassionate, empathetic, or nuanced. For those of us that do not care what a celebrity thinks, this approach is refreshing.

29937870Number Nine: The narrative voice in Based on a True Story: A Memoir comes from an old world influence. (How many modern books invoke the word “Hoosegow”?) That voice provides contrast to the cutting edge, nouveau humor Norm Macdonald employs in his narrative, but that contrast serves to intrigue more than it confuses. If the reader is the type that needs some sort of qualifier, or apology, for somewhat cruel, and insensitive scenes, takes, and reactions that occur throughout this book, it can be found somewhere in this kind, Midwestern sounding voice that Norm, and his ghost writer Charlie Manson, employ.

I knew nothing of Macdonald’s upbringing, prior to the reading of this book, and I didn’t care about it either. After reading the initial chapters of this book, however, I found myself relating to the rhythms and verbiage the author employed that was later explained by the fact that Norm Macdonald had an older father, and that he spent much of his youth surrounded by old, hired hands that knew nothing beyond manual labor. These were no-nonsense men that had an old world structure to their being that is too often lacking in today’s weak, easily offended culture. The locale of Macdonald’s rearing was different than mine, it turned out, but the small details of his maturation were so similar to mine that I was surprised to learn we didn’t grow up the exact same. This could be as a result of Norm’s better-than-expected ability to relate to the reader, or his ghost writer’s ability to translate Norm’s thoughts into a book that I found my voice in. The ghost writer is renamed Charlie Manson for the purpose of this book (not that Charlie Manson, the other one.)

Number Eight: There is some name-dropping in this book, but on the number of occasions in which he runs into celebrities, Norm’s character does not ingratiate himself to that person, or the trappings of that world. His character remains on the outside looking in, and there are no subsequent tropes that reveal a little guy finding his place in a larger world. This is not the typical celebrity memoir, in other words, but Norm Macdonald is not the typical celebrity. Norm’s character remains outside their world throughout, and it’s endemic to the character that he not endear himself to these people any more than he distances himself from them with insider insults.

Number Seven: For those of us that have never been able to explain why we find Norm Macdonald intriguing, this book only serves to highlight that confusion. He is an unusual person with unusual insights, raised in an unusual culture (unusual to most celebrities that is), and he has an unusual outlook on life as a result. A comprehensive nature of Norm Macdonald’s voice has never been captured as well before, and it remains consistent throughout this piece. How many talk shows has Norm Macdonald been on where he provides a brief glimpse into his mind with an unusual story that is funny in a way that the audience (and often the host of the show) doesn’t completely understand? How many of them have laughed with raised eyebrows, or other visual displays of concern for either Norm Macdonald, or themselves for laughing? That voice is here, in this book, and expanded upon.

Number Six: The shifts in perspective that Norm Macdonald achieves in this book are near seamless. Some call it style, others simply call it a proficiency for storytelling. Whatever the case is, if the reader has gained an appreciation for such minutiae in their books, they will thoroughly enjoy this. On those occasions when the seams are exposed, most of them involve Norm’s trademarked conclusions that remind the reader of the obnoxious conclusions Macdonald achieves in his stand up routines, and more famously on Weekend Update.

Number Five: A number of comedians, and top shelf celebrities have learned how to poke fun of themselves, but I would suggest that most of those people have learned the art of how to engage in self-effacing humor while allowing the audience in on the joke. There is a point by point, color by numbers approach to this form of comedy that has evolved thanks in part to Andy Kaufman, Chris Elliot, David Letterman, and perhaps Will Farrell. Other comedians have displayed the base nature of their talent by attempting to take the premise of this approach to crueler, and more obnoxious levels. It’s all good, though, because we all know it’s all in good, clean fun. We know that these jokes are all delivered in a tongue-in-cheek manner. In the character Norm has developed, onstage and off (with this book) the reader is not so sure. The narrative of “Based on a True Story: A Memoir” leads the reader to feel sorry for the character, while laughing at his naiveté, and his inability to abide by social norms.

Number Four: Although each bit in this book is a bit of one form or another, the layers of reality, coupled with the careful wording of each story leads the reader to believe that the author, the character, and all layers in between, believe otherwise. The book achieves that fine art of “the willing suspension of disbelief” in other words, that leads the reader to believe that they are being exposed to an uncomfortable level of nudity that is so sad that Norm Macdonald may either be a bad person, or a person that missed a few monkey bars on the way to maturation.

Number Three: Monty Python had a slogan that prefaced much of their material, “And now for something completely different.” For those of us that pine for something different, this book contains stories, reactions, and anecdotes that I have to imagine most authors, and almost all celebrities do their best to avoid. I have a sneaking suspicion that Macdonald’s public relations people asked him to include the “Based on” words to the title of his book. I have a sneaking suspicion that Norm wouldn’t mind it one bit if the reader believed this was the true story of Norm Macdonald’s life. Something tells me that his people, friends, associates, and business partners cautioned him to bolster the doubt regarding the material, because too many people might believe it’s his true story, and that this book may do some damage to his career.

Number Two: As one of Norm’s good friends says on a near-daily basis, “Always be closing.” As such, “Based on a True Story: A Memoir” is either building to a close throughout the various chapters, or its closing throughout. When it’s not strict to script of the respective story, hilarious anecdotes break the story up so well that one has to gather one’s self and remind themselves where the narrative was heading. The anecdotes appear to be accidental humor in other words. In the beginning of this book, I began highlighting some of the jokes believing that they would be precious jewels that I would have to remember. I do this with all provocative lines and paragraphs, but as I continued throughout the book, I gave up, knowing that when one highlights too often, the portions that are highlighted begin to lose value.

Number One: Norm Macdonald does whatever the hell Norm Macdonald wants. Is this a true narrative, Norm not does appear to care what the reader believes one way or another. Is this a readable narrative that involves the time-honored traditions of storytelling, Norm doesn’t appear to care. The storytelling format does have a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas feel to it, but other than that it does not follow the rules of any celebrity memoir that I’ve ever read. He may have informed us of some true facts regarding his upbringing, and the many things that have happened to him along the way, but he doesn’t care if the readers knows the difference, or, apparently, if those distinctions could lead to some damage of his career as an entertainer. As a result, I would say that this is by far the best celebrity memoir I have ever read, but I have the feeling Norm wouldn’t care what one way or another.

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A Review of Suicide Squad


The first and last thing that the audience of the movie Suicide Squad should know is that Intelligence Operative Amanda Waller is one bad mujer (as opposed to hombre).  It is imperative to the plot of the movie that the audience member regard this paper pushing bureaucrat in a pant suit(?) as an intimidating figure that warrants such respect from the most ruthless, murderers of our society that they are willing to do whatever they have to do to prevent her from being cross with them.

If you are not convinced that a bureaucrat –a character that is often depicted as a bumbling fool in so many other movies of this genre that the creators of this movie knew that they would have to continually shove the audience over this otherwise insurmountable hill– can be intimidating, you will be inundated by the characters in this movie informing you that they are intimidated by her.

Advance-Ticket-Promos-Amanda-Waller-suicide-squad-39774461-500-281Operative Waller is respectfully trumpeted as “The boss” by a ruthless, murderous character in one scene.  The question that immediately comes to mind is, why does this bad guy care what the institutional makeup of the hierarchy constructed against him is?  If he is a ruthless bad guy, one would think his entire existence has been to thwart authority, regardless its makeup.  Waller is then depicted (by the same ruthless, murderous character) as an intimidating leader that knows how to fire up the troops in another scene.  Again, why does he care?  He’s being informed that he is going to be forced on a mission that stands in direct opposition to his principles.  One would think that his goal would be to thwart that mission, regardless who is delivering the steps of the mission to him.  In a third scene, in which Waller enters a room shrouded by ominous music, another ruthless, murderous character asks her if she is the devil.  Why a ruthless, murderous character would show such deference, respect, and intimidation to anyone, much less a paper pushing bureaucrat, is not explained.  Yet, as the movie progresses, we learn that it’s germane to the plot that the audience know that they do.

We then learn that Waller is not only respected and feared by “the worst of the worst”, but she is actually liked by them, as evidenced by one of the ruthless, murderous characters saying, “I like her.”  This is the only scene in which the audience is left to infer that Waller has the type of powerful, bad ass leadership qualities that a ruthless, murderous character can appreciate.  In the other scenes, the audience is pounded over the head with this idea so many times that it becomes redundant.

I write the word idea, as opposed to fact, because as anyone that has ever attempted to write knows, a fictional fact can be established in the minds of an audience by showing that character in action.  An idea, on the other hand, is transferred to the audience by having the characters tell the audience something.  Those that have attempted to write novels or short stories, are informed that telling an audience something, as opposed to showing them, is a violation of the highest order, and in movies this is an even more severe violation.  Unless, that is, there are future scenes of action to establish the idea to the point of fact.  If there is only telling, the audience will still be left with notion that the characterization has not been proven.

There is one attempt to prove, or establish, the bona fides of the Waller character in a scene in which she whips out a machine gun and ruthlessly kills some of her employees, and the characters that surround her are shocked by this action, and one of them says something along the lines of, “I thought I was supposed to be the bad guy.”  By this point, however, the movie has established the fact that these bad guys have ruthlessly killed so many men that one ruthless act should be considered relatively meaningless to them.  One can guess that anyone, even a murderous thug, would be shocked to witness a bureaucrat taking out the office with a machine gun, but one would also think that a murderous thug would follow such shock by either laughing at a paper pushing bureaucrat’s attempt to appear intimidating, or they might find some sort of camaraderie with her after such an action.  Neither is the case in this particular movie.  They gain so much respect for her that they’re intimidated.  It’s germane to the plot.

One could say that a portion of the fear, intimidation, and respect the ruthless, murderers have for Waller is based on the fact that she holds their lives in her hand, but since when do irrational, murderous thugs fear for their own lives, in the movies?  Such characters are supposed to have an unusual disregard for their own lives.  And since when do ruthless characters, purported to have no respect for anything, begin to respect anything or anyone?  We do witness these murderers disrespect their more immediate authority figures, early on in the movie, but when it comes time for them to meet their ultimate authority figure, they have respect for her.  One would think that a rebellious group of murderous thugs would hate and disrespect an ultimate authority figure more.  They don’t, because she’s a paper pushing bureaucrat in a pant suit.  It’s germane to the plot.

My guess is that the actor that played Ms. Waller either did not inspire fear and respect in market testing, or the creative powers that put this movie together feared that the audience would have a tough time making the leap to a pant suit wearing bureaucrat engendering such intimidation from the ruthless, murderous bad guys (turned good guys! Surprise!! Spoiler Alert!!!) that they would do whatever she says.  Whatever the case is, the actors that play the bad guys in the movie are forced to deliver stilted lines that suggest that they respect her more than any of the non-pant suit wearing contingent that attempt to take temporary leadership roles in the movie.

I understand that it is germane to the plot that these ruthless murderers go servile to a paper pushing bureaucrat, but in most movies any level of respect, fear, or intimidation a bad guy may feel for the ultimate authority figure is either unattainable for that authority figure, due to the ruthless, irrational nature of the bad guy, or it’s left unsaid and constantly rebelled against.  About the only time, a bad guy concedes to an authority figure, if ever, is after the authority figure has achieved unquestioned victory at the conclusion of the movie, and even that is often left unsaid.

Most movies attempt to define the relationship between the bad guys and the ultimate authority figures that they fear, or hate, in the movie, as existing by means of a tenuous thread.  This helps define the conflict of the movie, the relative nature of good versus evil, and further characterization for the characters involved in this conflict that is, for the most part left unsaid, with the action sequences saying more than lines of dialogue ever could.  The place we’re currently in, at this point on the timeline of movie making, dictates that we place females in a position of power, and that more often than not those females be some sort of minority.  The movie makers do this with a combination of bravado and insecurity, the latter being something they feel they have to compensate for with constant verbal references to the ultimate authority figure’s power, her ability, and the manner in which everyone that encounters her, backs down for no discernible reason, and they do so in a manner that ends up proving to be detrimental to the ruthless, irrational characteristics that they hoped to instill in the murderous characters.  If we are going to continue to insist that females be in positions of power, in our movies, we are all going to have to agree that this can happen, and it is plausible, if for no other reason than to end this preoccupation movie makers have for establishing the idea that it can happen, and that it is plausible with tedious, redundant, over-the top characterizations that supplement what the movie makers must fear is a lack of whatever they think makes us believe is impossible regarding characters in their movies.

It’s ‘Okay to Like’ Guilty Pleasures


“It’s okay to like your favorite shows again, even if they have no cultural value or societal significance,” a person informed my friend.  “As long as the preference for the show is characterized as a guilty pleasure.”

After receiving permission to enjoy the show my friend once so enjoyed, she began binge watching the show on Netflix. She watched this show in the manner of one catching up with an old friend, after a prolonged absence. She knew the show was a silly sitcom, and she also knew that the premise of that show –though somewhat relevant in its era– had become dated and insignificant. So, even though she had always loved the show, she stopped watching it, even in private, until that friend of hers ‘gave her permission’ to end that prolonged exile, informing her that ‘it is now okay’ to enjoy that show again.

o-GILLIGAN-facebookAs with ubiquitous idioms of this sort, I heard the terms ‘given permission,’ ‘guilty pleasure,’ and ‘it’s okay to like’ before. When everyone begins saying such things, however, I’m left wondering where I was in the gestation cycle of the phrase. I didn’t think the phrases funny, when I first began hearing them, or if they were intended to be funny. I didn’t think they provided an interesting twist on the art of decision-making, and I didn’t think that I would ever be incorporating them into my decision-making process, or the explanations to others regarding my choices.

I just thought it was an odd way for one person to frame the dietary decisions she had made, and that’s where it started for me.  I’d heard people, largely women, framing dietary cheats this way. ‘I’ve been good,’ they would say before they took a bite of something they knew damaged the discipline they had exhibited to that point. They then gave themselves permission to eat what they wanted based on that established discipline, and they called those cheats guilty pleasures. At some point, these phrases made a crossover into other decisions, until people began framing all of their decisions with these qualifiers. They also began informing me that I should frame my decisions in this manner, that I should give it a spin, as it were, and that with these qualifiers, I could now make my decisions free from the guilt associated with prying eyes.

“Why wouldn’t it be okay for me to like the television shows I enjoy?” I would ask when the phrases began crossing over into entertainment choices. At this point in the gestation cycle of these phrases it was obvious that something had already happened. I didn’t know if it happened in the shows I never watch, some movie I missed, or if the phrase had been repeated in a commercial, or a number of commercials, but some vehicle had imprinted these phrases so deeply into the craniums of the people I speak with that they were using the phrases without knowing why. I’ve often found that the best way to cut to the heart of the matter is to ask a question so obvious that no one ever thought of it before.  ‘Why isn’t okay for me to like what I like?’ and ‘Why am I then required to qualify my choices in a manner that prevents you from thinking less of me?’ I began asking variations of these questions of those that posed these notions to me, and as with most idioms of this sort, no one knows why. They just hear other people framing their decisions in this manner, until they find themselves doing it.

After questioning a number of these people, I made the mistake of dismissing these phrases on the basis that no one understood why they did it, and I assumed that it would have a very short shelf life, until everyone I knew began repeating these phrases in almost the same context, and Google searches began revealing websites that were being built around the idea that ‘It’s ok to like’ this today, and ‘it’s okay to dislike’ other things. I even found a Twitter page that gave its visitors permission to like some things and to like other people that like other things. It’s difficult to determine how tongue-in-cheek these grants of permission are, or if these people enjoy being on the cutting edge of cultural trends.

Then, I hear that my friend is now binge watching her favorite show of all-time again, and she’s characterizing it as her ‘one guilty pleasure’. She drops that phrase, I could only assume, to prevent me from thinking less of her for watching such a dated, irrelevant show. She cared what I thought of her, in that instance, and I rationalized that unless we have a master plan of dropping out of the human race, we all care what others think to a point where we need to develop some kind of shield to protect our inner sanctum from prying eyes. Those that have attempted to loft the very high school era idea that they don’t care what anyone thinks of them have inevitably run into the ‘thou doth protest too much’ wall that reveals that they probably care more than anyone else. One could say that this ‘guilty pleasure’ allowance has not only ‘given us permission’ to enjoy the shows we enjoyed so much at one time, it gave rise to an industry in which cable channels like TV Land could prosper, and a Netflix was born, and the whole idea of binge watching became a permissible and acceptable guilty pleasure.

The first question I would’ve asked this ‘guilty pleasure’ friend of my friend that granted her permission to like her favorite show again is, ‘How many guilty pleasures is one person permitted, and what happens to that person that violates the excessive quantity principle of the lack of quality edict?’ One would assume that the term guilty pleasure is intended to be exclusive to one, or at least a few, products.  Are these guilty pleasures exclusive within industries? Can one have more than one television show they consider a guilty pleasure, and if so, is it specific to genre? If one has more than one ‘60’s era, silly sitcom, that they characterize as a guilty pleasure, is that a violation of guilty pleasure principle, and if the person has too many guilty pleasures will they end up spending so much time pleasuring themselves that they may find themselves walking around with burdensome guilt? Would that person be deemed unimportant, and would that lead them to being ostracized from the hip, in touch groups in a manner reminiscent of a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel?’ Who are these social architects that dictate to society what is and what isn’t okay to watch? And how did this need for the ‘guilty pleasure’ qualifier come about, so that we can watch what we want without undue scrutiny?

We’ve all been informed that The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island are okay to dislike, by these people, because these shows, and all shows like them, are impossible to take seriously. They say that these shows depict a silly and foolish era that we’ve all moved beyond, and ‘good riddance!’ they often add. At some point, however, they decide there is some quaint, retro glory in these shows, and they decide that ‘it’s now okay’ to go back and like these shows again, as long as the individual qualifies those viewings as a guilty pleasure. I would not listen to these people regardless how prestigious others deem them to be, but to those that do listen, I would ask, ‘What gives them the credibility to decide for you?’ It would seem to me that they gain their bona fides solely by making the claim that they know what it is that’s ‘okay to like’ and what is not, and what should be listed as a guilty pleasure.

***

My lifelong enjoyment of Gilligan’s Island could be called a ‘guilty pleasure’, if the term is defined as: “Something, such as a movie, television program, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard.” I know how dumb and silly the show is. I also know that in the broad, cultural sense it has no redeemable qualities. Yet, I do not feel guilty about any association I may have had, or will continue to have with the show, and I have no problem floating back in time to that place in time when I watched Gilligan’s Island every day for years.

This leads to that silly argument of extension that suggests that anything one is not ashamed of, must be something for which they hold such a sense of pride that they should be willing and able to defend, and those that don’t do either are taking the spineless, Switzerland position of critiquing both sides while trying to avoid vulnerability on the point. I understand that complaint, but remember we are talking about television shows here, and if I were forced to mount a defense for this television show –to avoid the spineless Switzerland position– it would be made in defense of silliness.

Gilligan’s Island was silly and dumb, as I’ve said, but so was one of the most celebrated, critically acclaimed, and award winning shows of our time: Seinfeld.  If we were to break this brilliant show down to its core, we would find silliness. The keys to Seinfeld’s success, it would seem to me, lay in its creative way to turn a phrase, and its ability capture a comprehensive thought with creative brevity. The writers were also hell bent on making a story flow through an arc and return to the theme of an episode with a “no hugging and no learning” themed resolution.

Gilligan’s Island could be said to be one of the predecessors of this “no hugging and no learning” theme that would later specifically be employed Seinfeld. It could also be argued that most of the shows of that era were based on this “no hugging and no learning” theme, and that the cultural relevance brigade with their “applause ready” soundbites, “poignant, thought-provoking, and very special” plot lines, with lots of hugging, and learning, and crying came later. It could also be argued that Seinfeld, and its “no hugging and no learning” theme was a return to that era when sitcoms didn’t try to be more than they were. They just wanted to make people laugh in an era when no one felt guilty about doing just that.

If the reader knows anything about Gilligan’s Island, and a growing number of people do not, they know that Gilligan’s Island would never be confused with having anything to do with cultural relevance. The creator of the show, Sherwood Schwartz, stated as much when he said that if there was anything political about the show it existed in an intended apolitical theme. His exact quote, as listed in a Mental Floss piece on the show, was that Gilligan’s Island represented, “A metaphorical shaming of world politics in the sense that when necessary for survival, yes we can all get along.”

As a political person that has been reminded, throughout my life, how divisive politics can be, I think we could all benefit from more “no hugging and no learning” shows. The problems with such shows is that no one feels important watching them, and we all have a need to feel important. Some of us even strive so hard for importance that we claim that we watch shows we never watch, read books we have not read, and listen to important music that no one listens to. Silly shows will never make a person feel important, they will not win awards, TV critics won’t talk about them, and water cooler speakers don’t often talk about “no hugging and no learning” shows, or if they do, it’s not reported on by TV critics that consider these type of shows guilty pleasures.

Seinfeld is the exception to all of these statements, of course, but that show developed such a groundswell of popularity that it caught people by surprise. The quality of the writing on the show was never in question, but there was never a “very special” plot line that critics could wrap their arms around. Critics sought a seminal episode to explain the ethos, and the manner in which it intertwined with the culture, explained it, or rose above it. When none of that happened, they decided to ‘give us permission’ to like she show based on the ‘guilty pleasure’ of watching a show about nothing.

The problem for the other silly, non-award winning, and panned by TV critics’ shows, is that quality writers don’t want to write for them, as most formulaic shows that eschew politics in their “no hugging and no learning” apolitical themes offer little in the way of sprucing up resumes.

What’s hilarious about the world these cultural doyens draw up, with their ‘it’s okay to like’ and shows ‘it’s okay to dislike’ parameters, is that they’re often aghast when a cultural figure from the other side of the aisles decree that there are shows ‘it’s okay to like’ and shows ‘it’s okay to dislike’, based on that cultural figure’s political and psychological underpinnings. With no objective understanding of what they do, the cultural doyens chastise the cultural figures for having the temerity to suggest that they can dictate what anyone should or shouldn’t watch. These people then ask us to join them in directing a “very special” special finger at the dastardly decision makers that they believe should be granted exclusive rights to that finger. Yet, I believe if we viewed these arguments in an objective manner, we should be able find a “very special” place in our hearts to provide both sides that finger.

As Jennifer Szalai details in her The New Yorker piece, the term guilty pleasure is almost exclusive to America. She provides an example in the way of a Frenchman interviewing for a job in America, in which he was asked what his guilty pleasures were. The Frenchman was confused. He claimed that he had never heard the term, and that the best translation he could find applied to matters no one he knew talked about. If a Gilligan’s Island was popular among the cultural elites in France, in other words, no one would knew it, because they didn’t talk about it. In America, on the other hand, it’s something we enjoy talking about almost as much as we do watching the shows.

“You make sure to talk about (your guilty pleasures) –which is why the term exudes a false note, a mix of self-consciousness and self-congratulation. Aside from those actively seeking out public debasement, if you felt really, truly ashamed of it, you probably wouldn’t announce it to the world, would you? The guilt signals that you’re most comfortable in the élite precincts of high art, but you’re not so much of a snob that you can’t be at one with the people. So you confess your remorse whenever you deign to watch (a show like Gilligan’s Island) implying that the rest of your time is spent reading Proust.”

Rock and Roll is Dead!


“Rock and Roll is dead!” is a line most of us have heard for most of our lives. From the anthemic screams of punk rockers to the classic rockers suggesting, “Today’s music ain’t got the same soul,” everyone has enjoyed repeating a version of this line. For most of our lives, however, this has been little more than snarky criticism of the current status quo. For some of us, this has been based on the idea that our favorite strain of rock is no longer prominent, that we don’t appreciate the new direction rock was headed in, or that we have simply aged out of it. Looking at it from a rational perspective, rock and roll has always been able to survive based on young individuals developing creative derivatives of what came before them, and those derivatives have developed movements that led to greater sales and continued power, for rock in the music industry. On both planes, it does appear that either rock music is in a severe and prolonged downtrend, or that it may, in fact, be dead in terms of it being a powerful force in the music industry.

“For generations, rock music was always there, and it always felt like it would come back, no matter what the current trend happened to be,” Eddie Van Halen informed Chuck Klosterman in a 2015 interview. “For whatever reason, it doesn’t feel like it’s coming back this time.”

As Klosterman writes, in his book But What if We’re Wrong, Eddie Van Halen said this at sixty-years-old:

“So some might discount (Eddie Van Halen’s) sentiments as the pessimistic opinion of someone who’s given up on music. His view, however, is shared by rock musicians who were still chewing on pacifiers when Van Halen was already famous.”

Thirty-seven-year-old singer of the band Muse, Matt Bellamy, echoed Eddie’s statement saying:

“We live in a time where intelligent people –or creative, clever people– have actually chosen computers to make (sic) music. They’ve chosen (sic) to work in tech. There’s an exhaustion of intelligence which has moved out of the music industry and into other industries.”

Chuck Klosterman then adds:

“We’ve run out of teenagers with the desire (and potential) to become (the next) Eddie Van Halen. As far as the mass culture is concerned that time is over.”   

If the reader is as shocked as I was to read a high profile, classic hard rock performer, coupled with a more modern artist, and a rock enthusiast on par with Chuck Klosterman, discuss the end of an era in such a rational, and persuasive manner, you’re not alone. It does not appear to me that these individuals were intending to be provocative. They were suggesting that it now appears that those of us that proclaimed, “Rock and Roll will never die!” were wrong, and that historians may view rock and roll as nothing more than a prolonged, influential, and cultural trend. That trend may have been such a prolonged staple that it’s been around longer than most of us have been alive. Yet, if we are able to remove the emotion we have vested in the art form and examine it from the perspective of creativity and album sales, it is more than likely that hundreds of years from now historians will view rock and roll as a trend that began in the mid-to-late fifties and ended somewhere around 2010.

The Creative Power 

The one aspect of Bob Dylan’s memoir Chronicles that an interested reader will learn about the man, more than any other aspect of his life, is how much depth went into Bob Dylan’s artistic creations. Dylan writes about the more obvious, influential artists that affected him, such as Woody Guthrie, but he also writes about the obscure musicians he encountered on his path, that affected him in ways large and small. He also writes about the manner in which reading literature informed his artistic persona, reading everyone from prominent poets and fiction writers, to the Ancient Greek philosophers, and he finally informs us of how experiences in his life informed him. The reader will close the book with the idea that the young Dylan wasn’t seeking a road map to stardom so much as he was learning the art of craftsmanship.

On this subject of craft, as it pertains to the death of rock and roll, the bassist from Kiss, Gene Simmons, informed Esquire:

“The craft is gone, and that is what technology, in part, has brought us. What is the next Dark Side of the Moon? Now that the record industry barely exists, they wouldn’t have a chance to make something like that. There is a reason that, along with the usual top-40 juggernauts, some of the biggest touring bands are half old people, like me.”

On the subject of craft and being derivative, we could argue that Dark Side of the Moon was derivative. We could also argue that Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin were all derivative. We could argue that rock and roll, itself, derived from rhythm and blues, and that rhythm and blues derived their sound from the blues, jazz, and swing music. There is no sin in being derivative, in other words, as most artists derived something from another influence, but the question of how derivative an artist is has often haunted most artists that derived their craft from other, more obscure artists. The question most artists have had to ask, internally and otherwise, is how much personal innovation did they add to their influences? Perhaps more important to this discussion is a question of how much room was left in the zeitgeist for variation on the theme their influence created? To quote the cliché, a time will arrive in any art form, when a future artist is attempting to squeeze blood out of a turnip, and while the room for derivatives and variations on the broad theme of rock and roll seemed so vast at one time, every art form eventually runs into a wall.

One could say that the first wave of rock and roll that didn’t spend too much time worrying about being derivative was the Heavy Metal era of 80’s hair metal bands. One could also say that they didn’t have to search too deep, at that time, because the field still yielded such a bountiful harvest. All they had to do was provide a decent derivative of a theme some 70’s bands derived from some 60’s band that were derivatives of 50’s bands, and so on and so forth. There was still something so unique at the heart of what they were doing, in that space in time, that they could develop what amounted to a subtle variation of a theme and still be unique.

At some point in this chain of variations and strains, the wellspring dried up for 80’s hair metal bands, and they became a mockery of former artists, until rock and roll was in dire need a new template. At this point, right here, many proclaimed the death of rock and roll. They claimed that rock and roll was now more about hairspray, eyeliner, and MTV than actual music. Into that void, stepped Guns N’ Roses, Faith No More, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and others. They provided unique variations at the tail end of the 80’s and early 90’s. At various points in the timeline, a variation always stepped up to keep the beast alive, but hindsight informs us that rock and roll was, indeed, on life support at this time. Hindsight also informs us, that when the 90’s Seattle bands, and The Smashing Pumpkins, stepped to the fore, their derived variation on the theme was, in essence, a reset of the template that had been lost somewhere in the late 80’s, as they brought rock back to the early Kiss, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith records of the 70’s.

This begs the question, would Nirvana have been as huge as they were, if they had appeared on the scene around 1983-1984, or would that have been too early for them. Are musical waves little more than a question of timing? Did Nirvana hit the scene at a time when the desire to recapture whatever was lost in the late 80’s was widespread? The Nevermind album may have been so good that it would’ve sold in just about any rock era, but would Nevermind have outsold Quiet Riot’s Mental Health and Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry, or would it have been too derivative of an era we just experienced. Would Nevermind have been the ten million copies shipped phenomenon it was if it hit the scene in 1984, or was it a valiant attempt to recapture what was lost in rock that we needed at the time?

Most of the musicians, in what rock critics called the grunge movement, had varied tastes, and some of their favorite artists were more obscure than the general public’s, but the basic formula for what would critics called grunge could be found in those four groups of musicians, from the 70’s, that had deep and varied influences. The grunge era, we could say, was the last innovative movement for nuanced rock.

Talk to just about any young person in America today, and they may list off some modern artists and groups that they listen to, but most of those that could be considered rock connoisseurs will provide “classic rock” band as one of their favorite genres. When someone my age hears the term classic rock, they’re more prone to think of one of the 70’s bands mentioned earlier, but these young people are referring to bands that were brand new to me somewhere around yesterday, yesterday being twenty years ago.

I know I run the risk of being dismissed as an old fogy when I declare rock dead, or something along the lines of “Today’s music ain’t got the same soul”, but there is something that is missing. In fairness to modern artists, and in full recognition of my old codger perspective, I have to ask how the “next big thing” will pop out, right now, in 2016, and offer the world a perspective on rock that no one has ever considered before? Such a statement does undercut the creative brilliance that young minds have to offer, but to those of us that have listened to everyone from top of the line artists to some of the more obscure artists in recording history, it seems to me that every genre, subgenre, experimentation, and variation has been covered to this point.

Gene Simmons asked where the next Dark Side of the Moon is going to come from, I ask where the next Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is, and it may be a question that led those of another era to ask what artist is the modern day equivalent to The Carter Family? I never thought I’d be this guy, but most of the modern rock music sounds uninformed and lacking in the foundation that previous generations had. I know this is largely incorrect, but when I listen to the rock bands of the current era, I don’t hear that long, varied search for influence. I don’t hear artists hearkening back the rich and varied tradition old blues singers, folk musicians, and country artists learned from their family and friends in gospel songs at church, at campfires, and at night before going to bed. I don’t hear an informed artistic persona. Their music lacks some of the organic funk R&B musicians brought to the fold, and the intricate instrumentation that the 50’s and 60’s jazz musicians left for their successors to mine.

Some consider this entire argument moot, however, and they say that the nature of music and art in general, suggests that there will always be an innovative, up and coming star to develop variations and derivatives of former artists if there is money in it. Naysayers would echo their favorite artists and say it’s not about the money, and true art never should be. While that may be true, it is also true that when the money is removed, as the Gene Simmons quote below states, there may not be people in the upper reaches of the chain that are willing to develop that talent, when the whole model is thrown into chaos, and the structure of it is destroyed.

It’s About the Money. It’s Always About the Money.

“You’re (now considered) a sucker if you pay for music,” one of my friends informed me at what was, for me, the advent of file sharing. 

My friend did not say the words “now considered” but that was the import of his statement. I was no Luddite. I knew about the file sharing sites, such as Napster, but for me, Napster was a place to find obscure throwaways, bootlegged versions of the songs I loved, and cover songs, by my favorite artists. I learned of the Metallica lawsuit against Napster, and some talk of file sharing among the young, but I had no idea that the crossover to file sharing had already begun, for most music enthusiasts, until my friend dropped this line on me.

The line did not inform me of the new way of attaining music, as I already knew it was out there, but it informed me of the new mindset in regards to accessing music. After scouring these sites for my favorite songs, albums, and artists, (and finding them, waiting to be downloaded for free) one thing became crystal clear, this was going to change everything. I read of the music industry hauling young people into court after illegally downloading music, but my astute, file sharing friend said he believed that the music industry was desperate, and that they were trying to scare people. He correctly predicted that the music industry would stop trying to prosecute people and simply give in. He said that they should’ve done something long before this point (and this point was very early on in the age of file sharing) to cash in on the file sharing wave. He said that there were simply too many people, from his small corner of the world, downloading music for free, for the music industry to prosecute them all.

File sharing, say some, may have spelled the true death of rock and roll as a profitable, cultural force in America today. I write this as a qualifier for those that will suggest that the idea that a bunch of kids sitting in a garage to develop a new sound will never die. It may not, but reading through Gene Simmons’ interview in Esquire, a reader learns of the type of support that new musicians need from execs in the upper echelon of the music industry to help them progress from garage rockers to a cultural force in America, and that that part of the structure has been destroyed by file sharing. To belabor this point for just a moment, we would all prefer to believe that our favorite musicians had little regard for money, or corporate influence, but how much of the sound of an album was tweaked, finessed, and completed by industry money? Listen to insiders speak of a final product, and they’ll tell the reader that the album doesn’t sound anything like it might have without a high quality producer, and it doesn’t sound anything like it did before the corporate mixer came in and put in some finishing touches that those of us in the audience know nothing about.

Rock and roll’s appeal has always been a young person’s game, however, and that makes most of the derivative argument moot. Most young people live in the now, and young people have never cared that their favorite artist happened to be a hybrid between The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, at least not to the point that they wouldn’t buy their favorite artists’ albums. As far as they were concerned, their favorite band’s sound, and look, was fresh, original, and theirs.

“My sense is that file sharing started in predominantly white, middle- and upper-middle-class young people who were native-born, who felt they were entitled to have something for free, because that’s what they were used to,” Gene Simmons also said in the Esquire interview. “If you believe in capitalism — and I’m a firm believer in free-market capitalism — then that other model is chaos. It destroys the structure.”

Death of the Album

Scouring these file sharing sites, and creating personalized playlists, I also sensed a death of the album. As an album-oriented listener, I always thought one could arrive at the artistic persona of a musician in the deeper cuts of an album. My philosophy was written out by Sting, and his, “Anyone can write a hit, but it takes an artist to write an excellent album” quote. I was affected by the new file-sharing mindset almost immediately, as I began to consider it a waste of time to listen to the various Queen Jane Approximately cuts, when I could create a playlist filled with top shelf, Like a Rolling Stone cuts from various artists.

The idea of the self-directed, playlist mindset developed somewhere around the advent of the cassette tape, an era that predated me, but the full album managed to maintain most of its glory throughout that era. For most of my life, the power of a quality single led concertgoers to leap out of their seat and rush the stage. With all these new tools, however, a person no longer has to stand around for an hour waiting for the band to take the stage. They no longer have to sit through mind-numbing guitar solos, and witty banter from the lead singer to get to the one song they liked from that artist. They could now go to a site like YouTube to watch their favorite singer sing that quality single.

I still think that the lack of depth in most products current artists put out is a factor in the demise of rock as a force in the industry. I am persuaded that that is not the case by the idea that young people know as little about the history of their music as their favorite artists do, however, and what little they do know is superseded by how little they care about it.

I am also convinced that file sharing has had an effect, if not a devastating effect, on the structure from top to bottom. Another writer had an interesting take on this matter, stating that the file sharing mindset may have something to do with young people growing up watching their favorite artists display their wares on shows like MTV’s Cribs. Shows like these may have led young people to think that their favorite artist has enough money as it is, and the shows may have led the young people to download the music for free without guilt. Which, in turn, led them to believe anyone that plopped down money for music to be an absolute sucker.

“They’re not going to miss any meals if I deprive them of my $9.99,” they may say. That may be true in the case of this individual, but what happens when millions of people begin sharing this mindset? What happens is that when we begin removing the $9.99 bricks that formed the foundation of the industry, we destroy the industry, as we knew it. They will sign fewer rock artists, they will no longer hire all those little guys that finished the product, and they will no longer provide support or promotion to an album that would’ve garnered it before, because there’s little-to-no money in it for any of the players, on any level.

Whether it’s the lack of depth, or the idea that music no longer affords an artist enough money to make an honest living at it, thanks to file sharing, it does appear that the starving artist walking around with nothing more than a guitar strapped to his back has become an endangered animal in America today, and the consequences for that could run deep for a culture that has subsisted on the philosophical foundation of rock music for as long as most of us have been alive.

Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait


Self-Portrait is the tenth studio album of Bob Dylan’s catalog, and in my opinion, his most personal. Some say Blood on the Tracks. I say Blood on the Tracks captured a brief time in Bob Dylan’s life, but Self-Portrait appears to tell the musical tale of the influences and history of Bob Dylan to that point in his career, dating back to his early days in Minnesota and his early years spent in New York. I believe the album showcases the artistic heritage, through original pieces and cover songs, that led to Bob Dylan wanting to be an artist in the first place. I believe this album was such a personal note to Dylan that when the criticism hit the fan, it cut deep into a man that didn’t know negative reviews at that point in his career, and this led him to try and create some distance between himself and what I believe to be his most vulnerable album.

This is a subjective review of one album in Bob Dylan’s catalog that accounts for the top-of-the-line brilliance of what some critics simply call “the fifty-six songs” from the five albums that preceded Self-Portrait. This reviewer was intimately familiar with those albums prior to listening to Self-Portrait, but Self-Portrait was so maligned that I didn’t even bother investigating it. This review is also based on the advantage of coupling Self-Portrait with the Another Self-Portrait album from the Bootleg Series, an advantage some critics may say is unfair since the latter provided clarity on the former. This review is also made from the vantage point of viewing this album as nothing more than another album. The critics, of this era, were used to nothing but top-of-the-line brilliance from Bob Dylan, and in that light they viewed Self-Portrait as a legendary failure, when compared to the first nine albums.

Self-PortraitSelf-Portrait, as I see it, is a collection of songs that didn’t fit into Dylan’s prior albums. It is a pastiche album in the manner The Beatles’ The White Album, Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, and Pavement’s Wowee Zowee albums were pastiche albums. There is no over-arching theme to such albums, no cohesion between songs, and the entire effort appears –to the naked eye– to be a throw off, at least in comparison to the artists’ other, more structured albums. The danger of pastiche albums, for their artists, is that their appeal will often be exclusive to other artists. Devout fans may even be disappointed by a pastiche album, for a devout fan is devoted to the artist for reasons that a pastiche album may not satisfy. Even in the selections of which songs to cover, and how to translate them, the artist reveals themselves on a level they may not have on prior albums.

When a musician lands a record deal, their first album is often an assemblage of songs that could be called a greatest hits collection of everything they’ve developed to that point. It’s the best of the best material they’ve written in an effort to land a record deal, and the reason they were signed in the first place. This is often followed by the demand for a second album, an album that tends to be a rushed effort that seeks to cash in on the success of the first record. Somewhere along the line, and this point in an artist’s career varies with the artist, as it did with Bob Dylan, they move past the more top-of-the-line, flowery brilliance of their work to their roots. If the artist is a true artist, as opposed to being little more than a rock and roll star, and they’ve been writing material at the pace a true artist will, they will accumulate a wealth of material that carries special meaning to them, and as we’ve seen with the Bootleg Series, Dylan was more prolific than most gave him credit for. For reasons specific to the project, the recording chieftains, the producer of the record, etc., these vagabond songs never made it on the prior albums, but they continued to have a special place in the artist’s heart.

It’s vital, at this point in an artist’s career, that they achieve something in their industry with their top-of-the-line, creative brilliant creations that allows them to be immune to studio chieftains’ and rock critics’ complaints of such an album. It is a bold move to release such an album, and the artist will need this immunity, and a level of confidence in their ability that leads them to be less vulnerable to outside opinion.

Bob Dylan was at a point in his career where he could release whatever he produced, but he was not immune to the criticism from the critics. Bob Dylan chose to portray Self-Portrait as a statement of rebellion against the ‘voice of a generation’ moniker he had received, and he made various other statements to distance himself from the album, but I believe that these statements were defensive statements made to avoid revealing how much pain he felt as a result of the album’s reception. After reading through a number of Bob Dylan’s explanations for creating this album, or putting it together, I find myself empathizing with Bob Dylan. Who wouldn’t attempt to gain some distance from an artistic creation that was pummeled by “those in the know”?

I believe it was a mechanism he used to inform the world that their attempts to pour salt in the wound did not affect him, and that Self-Portrait was nothing more than a pre-emptive attack against those that would attack him for revealing his more vulnerable side. One could also theorize that the criticism hurt his ego in a way that caused him to rethink the project. To this point, Dylan had been told he was a genius, a ‘voice of a generation’, and as much as Dylan stated that he loathed that title, saying he was “just a guy that wrote songs”, it had to hurt a little to have those titles stripped from him, as opposed to him disavowing them. Therefore, he basically tried to give the project a deeper meaning that would redefine it, so he wouldn’t have to deal with the pain the criticism caused. I could be wrong, of course, but that’s my interpretation.

As opposed to the other three pastiche albums listed above, Self-Portrait was met with scathing, critical reviews. This may have been based on the fact that the critics didn’t think it was a very good album, and it may have based on the fact that the previous nine studio albums were labeled masterpieces by those same critics, and Self-Portrait was viewed as a fall from that lofty plateau. It also may be a result, and this is pure opinion, of the fact that most critics have never attempted to write a song, a novel, or do anything artistic. Their job is exclusive to criticizing those that do. Having said that, some critics have suggested that the rushed follow up of the album New Morning, four months later, was Bob Dylan’s attempt to get the world to forget that Self-Portrait ever happened.

Most apply the term ‘artist’ as a compliment to define the creator of artistic brilliance, but the term can be loosely applied to almost anyone that attempts to create art. There are poor artists and brilliant artists, in other words, but there is an almost universal mindset that those that attempt to create art share. When I write that I am an artist, therefore, no one should confuse the term artist with an egotistical leap.

As an artist that attempts to create art, and spends a great deal of time contemplating the art of creation, I may have a different interpretation of art than those that experience it from a critical perspective, or those for whom art is little more than background noise that requires top-of-the-line, creative brilliance to wake them from their hypnagogic slumber. An artist strives to understand another artist’s attempt at the point of inception, and they look beyond another artist’s top-of-the-line, creative brilliance to find it.

In an appearance on The Charlie Rose Show, Robbie Robertson of The Band, said: “Something happened to (Bob Dylan) in his youth where he just decided to write off all the rules.”

This quote gets to the core of this fascination for some of us. What happens in the life of a person that leads them to seek artistic nuance? We’ve all had bad things happen to us that form a foundation we spend the rest of our lives trying to recover from, or rebel against. We’ve all had great people in our lives that have encourage us to be even better, and those people help motivate us to do something on our own that defies the conventions and rules of our craft to do something different, but there is something different that happens in the formulation of an artist that goes onto create Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. What happened that set him apart? Was it a degree of pain that most don’t experience? Was he inordinately encouraged by those around him when he grew up, and what combination of events led to Bob Dylan developing such a unique perspective on music.

Those of us that have grown up in a world where Bob Dylan was always there, don’t understand how much he did in his time to shake everything up. The idea that Dylan changed the way music was written is almost a universally accepted fact. Did he change things more than Brian Wilson, The Beatles, or later Led Zeppelin? It would be an interesting argument, but in his own ways Dylan did change the landscape. What happened to these transformative artists that led them to not only believe that they had what it took to be transformative but to act it out in a bold and transformative manner, and can the answer to this question be found in their art?

As an artist that has spent a great deal of time discovering the top-of-the-line, creative genius of the fifty-six songs on Bringing it All Back HomeHighway 61 RevisitedBlonde on BlondeJohn Wesley Harding, and Nashville Skyline, I didn’t bother investigating Self-Portrait. It was considered a two-star album, and a generally accepted failure. As an artist that has had his more vulnerable pieces slammed by his critics (friends of mine), I understand Dylan’s attempt to make everyone forget his self-portrait. I equate this album to Dylan getting naked for us, on record, and revealing himself in a manner that when people basically pointed and giggled at his vulnerabilities for the effort, it hurt. At the time of its release, some have said that Dylan was one of the most powerful artists in the world, and when he displayed the courage to get vulnerable for us, we ridiculed him for it.

As many have said, Self-Portrait is not a starting point, and its appeal may be limited to those that have already thoroughly digested the top-of-the-line, creative genius of the fifty-six songs on the prior five albums, but to my mind Bob Dylan didn’t separate himself from those in that top-of-the-line, creative geniuses argument, until I heard Self-Portrait. My definitions are not your definitions, of course, but those five prior albums didn’t speak to me on another, artistic level in the manner Self-Portrait did. I had reached a point, in my listening enjoyment, to recognize that Dylan had to be in the argument, in other words, but I never knew him as an artist until I heard Self-Portrait, and the Another Self Portrait edition of the bootleg series.

Top Ten Songs from both albums, for those looking to sample the best singles from this album (in no particular order).

  • Living the Blues.
  • Take Me as I Am (Or Let me go)
  • Gotta Travel On
  • (Quinn The Eskimo) The Mighty Quinn
  • Alberta #1
  • Working on a Guru
  • In Search of Little Sadie
  • Time Passes Slowly #1
  • This Evening So Soon
  • Pretty Saro

The Perfect Imperfections of Metamorphosis


It’s not funny that a man, a Gregor Sama, awakes one day to discover that a he is a monstrous vermin. (Some readers have declared that Sama changed into a giant insect or a cockroach.) It could be funny, some would suggest, in the hands of more humorous writer. The plot could be less cerebral, more slapstick, and loaded with innuendo in other hands. The premise is just ripe for great one-liners, hilarious getups, and situation comedy gold. In Franz Kafka’s hands, however, Metamorphosis is not only not funny. It’s not even humorous. If the story didn’t have such a preposterous premise, we might call a little tragic. As the author David Foster Wallace quote below suggests, however, that’s what makes Kafka so funny.

If a stubborn reader takes umbrage with the fact that some consider Kafka’s masterpiece Metamorphosis funny, because “I know funny!” They would have to admit that using such a disturbing transformation to explain human psychology is one of the finest literary definitions of the word clever.

For young, aspiring writers, Metamorphosis may also be one of the finest examples of Chekov’s razor we have in the literary canon. For what modern writer would attempt to write a story of a man turning into a bug without some sort of explanation for that transformation? Amazon.com reviewers would surely roast a modern writer at the stake for not setting this story up with a proper scientific explanation for how a man could transform in such a manner. Doing otherwise, they might suggest, could damage the story’s credibility. Moviegoers might require a detailed, computer-generated-imagery (CGI) visual description of this transformation, brought to you by the fine people from Lucas Films, LTD. A writer shouldn’t start a story after the transformation, modern audiences might complain. The transformation is the story, or at least the cool part of the story.

We can only guess that throughout the gestation of Metamorphosis Franz Kafka attempted some explanations, and that he couldn’t come up with one he considered satisfactory. Those of us that know literary techniques could also guess that at some point in the creative process, Kafka learned of Chekov’s razor, and Kafka began to believe that those explanations were of no value to anyone but himself, thus leading him to place the explanation on the editing room floor. The only explanation we get is, “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams. He found himself in his bed into a monstrous vermin transformed.” Kafka might have deemed all preceding detail irrelevant and best left to the imagination of the reader.

Gregor’s dreams weren’t even horrific! Evil! or Maddening! Kafka does not lead the reader to believe the transformation was the result of the dreams. The dreams were “uneasy”. Subtle, in other words, and inconsequential to the story.

Kafka’s apparent adherence to Chekov’s razor informs the reader that the transformation is not the story. Kafka apparently deemed the transformation so low on the scale of importance, in the story, that when his publisher informed him that a bug would be on the cover of the story, Kafka replied, “Not that, please not that!” Kafka may have hoped to attract readers with the premise of the transformation, but he hoped that readers would approach the story with more nuance. If Kafka were alive today, and awash in modern lexicon, he might say that readers should read Metamorphosis from an “It is what it is” perspective and nothing more.

Although, Kafka spends some time revealing how the other characters react to Gregor’s transformation by screaming, fainting, and falling, he does not portray these reactions in a humorous manner that we could call overt. The mother falls over a table, and Gregor’s employer runs from the apartment. A reader, reading from the “more is always more” perspective would not be pleased with Franz Kafka, and Kafka might even find himself the subject of constructive criticism for Metamorphosis if he had written this story today.

“You could do so much more with these scenes,” one imagines a group of beta readers informing Franz Kafka, in a modern day writing circle. “Why don’t you have the sister, this Grete, vomit? You could then describe the vomit in intricate detail.” “What about having the father pee his pants in alarm? Bodily functions are always funny.” and Kafka might hear something along the lines of, “You’ve just left us hanging here, begging for more.”

In Kafka’s “it is what it is” hands, however, these reactions are portrayed in a serious, if not sad vein, as the victim of the metamorphosis becomes more ostracized from his own family due to his affliction. The humor, if there is any in this scene, is for the reader to define.

The lesson Metamorphosis provides to the aspiring writer that seeks to learn a lesson in style, is in the power of subtlety. The outlandish storyteller, seeking to provide modern lessons in disturbing and evocative imagery, learns in one reading of this story that the “it is what it is” principle of storytelling should be employed to lay a foundation of pedantic reality from which the reader can leap.

“It’s not that students don’t “get” Kafka’s humor,” David Foster Wallace said, postulating on the frustration of teaching Franz Kafka, “but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get –the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke– that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home. It’s hard to put into words up at the blackboard, believe me. You can tell them that maybe it’s good they don’t “get” Kafka. You can ask them to imagine his art as a kind of door. To envision us readers coming up and pounding on this door, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. That, finally, the door opens … and it opens outward: we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch (Translation: That’s really funny).”

Even to those of us that appreciate subtlety, it is difficult to read this quintessential Kafka story, Metamorphosis, without feeling a little letdown by the anti-climactic ending. The monstrous vermin, that is Gregor Samsa, dies without ceremony. The advent of his death is subtle and inconsequential. By the time Gregor succumbs to death, his family is glad to be rid of him. To them, he has become a burden and an embarrassment. The reader infers that the Samsa family members are already at peace with the loss of Gregor, but there is little evidence of this fact in the passages that follow the transformation. The mother does state that she wants to visit her son, at one point, but the family easily dissuades from doing so. After the transformed Gregor finally dies, the Samsa family calls upon the maid to dispose of the carcass, in the manner they might other burdensome vermin.

Kafka scholars state that he agreed that Metamorphosis had an unsatisfactory ending stating: “Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its very marrow.” After the initial reading of the story, this reader found himself a little letdown too. I fell prey to imagining the possibilities. I thought of other avenues for the story, great one-liners, hilarious getups, and the manner in which the situation could be weaved to comedic gold for others “to get”. The more I thought about Metamorphosis’ ending, the more I thought the imperfect ending might have been the perfect one. For, if as David Foster Wallace suggested, “The horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.”

If there is humor in Metamorphosis, it cannot be located from the subjective distance most would view a fantastical tale of a man that transforms into an insect of some sort. It requires a long form interpretation from the reader imagining that they are one of the lucky few that will live a long life. For, if we are one of those lucky few, we will begin to gain distance from what we meant throughout our life, and that struggle to establish, and re-establish ourselves will begin to wane, as it did for our loved ones when they began to age and metamorphosed into senile, old people that are incapable of taking care of themselves. They were lucky enough to live long lives, but they eventually became a burden to the family, as we all will when we become reduced to that perspective our loved ones currently have of us. We will reach a point where they no longer cherish what we once were –when we guided them through life and took care of them– and it’s almost a relief to them that we’re gone, and we arrive at our own anti-climactic ending that our loved ones will pay others to dispose of.

 

The Future of Sci-Fi Tropes and Dystopic Hopes


Roads will still exist in the future, but if the “figurative schemes of thought” of the architectural images of futuristic sci-fi movies are to be believed, they will be miles above the ground. These future sci-fi roads will sprout from an enormous, corporate monolith in the manner of an octopus. The import of this sci-fi trope is that we will no longer have cars in the incarnation we now know. These cars do not even require a runway, they lift off the ground, which begs the question why will we need roads? The unspoken answer is that while roads may no longer be constructed for human travel, they are necessary to provide a foundation of stability for the evil, corporate structure.

The corporation, in question, is often an intangible, ominous main character in the story, with an ominous name. This begs the question why would the founder choose a name for his creation that potential clients might associate with evil? Answer: It is implied that the corporation did not originate from human idea. This corporation, is, was, and always will be, springing to life from some sort of primordial, evil ooze. If the corporation did originate from a they –those humans that sat on its corporate boards, and worked in its departments, and divisions– it evolved into a self-serving “It” that no longer has a need for employees, much less customers, or any actual goods and services.

TMLandThe few humans still involved in the corporation are made all the more faceless by the fact that the corporation requires them to be in full battle gear even while tasked with the most mundane chores, such as inputting data into a computer, and their prime directive (much like the drone bee) is to chase and/or kill anyone that dares to question It. And the It (as forecast by those that know) will find a way to progress into our neighborhoods, put us in pods –as opposed to suburban housing– take away our need for Puggles, and parakeets, and drain us of every vestige of humanity, until It can achieve an end game.

This end game often gets muddled in a loose group of references, but most sci-fi fans don’t require a great deal of detail regarding It’s evil plan. (This viewer also thinks the specifics of the corporation’s evil plan end up on the cutting room floor with a “too preachy” note on it from the monolithic, evil production, Hollywood chieftains.) The average sci-fi fan cares more about chase scenes anyway, the battle scenes, the CGI, and how the movies’ gorgeous heroes will overcome the final obstacle, the manifestation of It (often a monster that drools). The details of this plan would be redundant anyway, for as all sci-fi fans know the sole purpose of all corporations is to end humanity as we know it, so the corporation can franchise out to a chain that will exist for the sole purpose of being evil and ending humanity as we know it, unless our unassuming, swashbuckling, and gorgeous heroes can put a stop It.

The website The Millions states that the word trope has taken on a different incarnation through the years:

“‘Various scholars throughout history … have argued that a great deal of our conceptual experience, even the foundation of human consciousness, is based on figurative schemes of thought.’ The writer also notes that Tropes (in the sense of figures of speech) do not just provide a way for us to talk about how we think, reason, and imagine, they are also constitutive of our experience.’” Modern language has it that the word trope has come to mean: “a common or overused theme or device: cliché.”  

The origin of the trope for the octopus road coming out of the monolith, corporate structure may have occurred long before The Jetsons, but most of us (of a certain age) saw it displayed there first. To our minds, therefore, when sci-fi movie makers feel compelled to add the octopus road, they are either paying some sort of tangential homage to The Jetsons, or they are attempting to appeal to our “figurative schemes of thought that are constitutive of our experience” of what the future will look like by way of The Jetsons, or the sci-fi novels and comic books that preceded it.

The unspoken reason behind these miles high roads, is based on the idea that we’ll run out of the space necessary for more traditional, ground bound roads. For some reason, however, pedestrians keep falling off these roads that are created miles above the terrestrial plain. We have roads and walkways that were constructed high off the ground, in the present, but they’re often enclosed, or they have substantial guardrails that prevent people from falling. There is no apparent need for guardrails in our shared “figurative schemes of thought” of the future.

If guardrails become passé in the future, one has to wonder how the original architect of the evil monolith (often composed of shiny crystal) will manage to avoid federal and state zoning codes that governments throw at every project prior to construction. If this architect is crafty enough to evade government intervention, or he has enough money to bribe government officials, one has to imagine that he will see financial ruin by way of personal injury lawyers looking to cash in on the mental duress their clients experience when thinking of falling from these roads, and from those families of the victims that do fall.

If this architect manages to develop some patented safety measures that thwart most of the personal injury lawsuits that hit him, and he manages to avoid getting bogged down in all of the bureaucratic red tape from government officials –expressing alarm for public safety with one hand pointing at the inherent danger and taking payoffs for their silence with the other– this architect will probably go broke as a result of litigation brought by patent lawyers scouring the finer details of architect’s patent to help the lawyer’s clients siphon as much cash off the original architect as possible, until no future architects, seeking to create evil, corporate monoliths will follow the original architect into this minefield.

The future, as cynical, non-sci-fi fans see it, is not one of crystal cities, miles high roads, and constant innovation, but of government-mandated open spaces and wide open plains as far as the eye can see. One has to guess with the current path we’re on –of government officials and lawyers destroying creators’ plans and finances– that our current course dictates that the future will not be one of architectural brilliance and innovation, unless an ingenious mind comes along and discovers a way to bubble wrap the world and have gelatinous bubble guns at every portal to protect anyone from ever being harmed again.

Until that day arrives, a more realistic dystopian, sci-fi movie would depict our future being one of wide open plains and prairies that mirror Kansas and Nebraska where a screaming fall of a couple miles before one makes contact with terra firma –from an octopus roads that sprouts from a monolithic corporation– becomes nothing more than a trip over a piece of loose soil. This movie would not provide us the stunning visuals our “figurative schemes of thought” have come to expect from big budget sci-fi movies that project our future, of course, but with the course we’re now on it would be a lot more realistic.