Josh Hornik Blog

June 14, 2006

Hank Williams: Tortured Genius

The inaugural entering class into the Josh Hornik Music Hall of Fame might look something like this:
- Ludwig van Beethoven
- Robert Johnson
- Frank Sinatra
- James Brown
- Bob Dylan
- Led Zeppelin
and one more: Hank Williams.

Hank Williams was the first giant of "hillbilly" music, writing many of the greatest songs of heartbreak and loss, creating hits with unmatched regularity, singing with a masterful blue yodel, and bringing freshly-named "country" music to the cities and into the mainstream. (OK, for the last accomplishment, now I think he should maybe be cursed, not praised.)

I just finished Paul Hemphill's short but neatly-told biography of Williams, Lovesick Blues. Where Greil Marcus battered the reader with his poetry, Hemphill's prose aims more at the everyman -- an intentional choice, because his main theme is Hank Williams as the songwriter for the everyman.

The Hank Williams story is pretty familiar, especially with the recent run of musical genius biopics. Growing up with nothing during the Great Depression, Williams found music early, interned on the street with a local street singer, and started drinking in his teen years. Motivated by an ambitious wife (who, Hemphill tells us in some of the more amusing stories, wanted to sing with her husband in a Carter Family-style act but had a horribly unlistenable voice), Williams hustled for radio shows and spots on local country music cavalcades.

Finally growing popular enough to get into a studio and record, Hank joined up with Fred Rose of Acuff-Rose Music, and together, they began an incredible run of hit-making. A legendary debut at the Grand Ole Opry followed. (A spot on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville is still marked to remember where Hank's debut took place.) After a few years of incredible success in music and incredible pain in his personal life (failed marriages, debilitating back pain, and even more debilitating alcoholism), Williams died at only 29 years old.

Here is what I left out of the story: the songs. In his few years of performing and recording, Hank Williams managed to record the following songs and more: Lovesick Blues, I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, Long Gone Lonesome Blues, Cold Cold Heart, Hey Good Lookin', Jambalaya, You Win Again, Kaw-Liga, and Your Cheatin' Heart. As recorded by himself, his songs were giant hits. But they were also covered by other country singers, and countless singers from other genres (Tony Bennett had a hit with Cold Cold Heart, Elvis did Cheatin' Heart, etc.)

Without whitewashing Hank's faults -- his drinking, especially, but also his womanizing -- Hemphill remains sympathetic to Williams. He wasn't perfect, true, but his problems stemmed from other things, like his back pain (he suffered from untreated spina bifida) and bad choices with women. And Hemphill doesn't skimp on praise for the Williams catalog (though, to be honest, I felt his book could have used more firsthand accounts of the power of Williams' songwriting).

If Hollywood hasn't started on the Hank Williams biopic yet, it should. His life was interesting (the twist could be that he never got clean, so we could avoid the tedious drying out scene) and his music warrants a tribute much more than Johnny Cash's, and at least as much as Ray Charles'.

Read the book, or, even better, buy the greatest hits on CD.

Posted by JoshHornik at 12:27 PM | Comments (0)

May 03, 2006

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita is a great book. I can say that, even though I think I maybe got about 50% of what was going on in it.

What I missed:
- It seems that the book is probably a hilarious, biting satire of Russian society and its people, especially the Russian literati. (I found myself wishing I knew a little more about early-20th century Russia, so I could have gotten more of the jokes.)
- I understand it is also a political commentary on the new Stalinist regime in power at the time it was written. (Had I known a bit more about Russian history, I might have understood why Bulgakov had to keep the book secret in his lifetime. The book wasn't published until 30 years after his death.)

- Much of the book takes its inspiration from the Faust story. Having never read Faust in any version, that went right over my head.
- Finally, there is quite a bit taken from and/or adding to the stories in the New Testament. (I tried to read the Bible -- I only made it as far as the endless censuses in the Old Testament's Judges...)

OK, are you getting the point that this is an incredibly rich novel, built on the timely (political/social commentary) and the timeless (theology/philosophy)?

Beneath all that I missed, there was the literary low-hanging fruit. The book boasts a wildly imaginative story, told at a breakneck pace. The core of the story regards the arrival in Moscow of Satan himself, accompanied by a retinue including mischievous, sometimes murderous, men and a large talking cat. The group immediately begins wreaking havoc on the entire town, performing feats of magic with hilarious consequences -- making one administrator disappear but leaving his suit to continue to perform his duties; turning an entire office into a glee club, singing in harmony against their wills; and even minor tricks like turning paper into 10-ruble notes, which then turn back to paper to all of Moscow's consternation.

But that is only the set up. In fact, the story regards the titular characters of The Master, a frustrated author of a book about Pontius Pilate, and Margarita, his devoted lover/apostle. And meanwhile, Bulgakov smoothly and ingeniously intertwines the book-within-a-book story of Jesus (Yeshua, in this telling) and Pilate -- a different take on the story, in which Pilate begrudgingly sentences a very human-seeming Christ, then has Judas murdered himself, and finally finds himself in Hell (or is it Purgatory), suffering from guilt and the desire to speak to Christ again.

What is most amazing, considering the literary references, theological inquiries, multiple plotlines, and typically confusing Russian patronymics, is how enjoyable this novel is. Its swift-moving story, amusingly detailed characters, and drive towards a tidy and truly satisfying conclusion, all make the book eminently readable.

My biggest question after reading The Master and Margarita was why haven't more people heard of this book?

Posted by JoshHornik at 03:59 PM | Comments (0)

May 16, 2005

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

I have always loved Philip Roth's books, but I have never been so in awe of his skill as a writer as I was reading The Plot Against America. This is a true master at the top of his game. It seems like every choice he made was the perfect choice and it reads so naturally that none of them seems like a conscious choice at all.

Told as if it is a true story from the author's past, involving events that happened to his family and him, the characters are so richly (and sympathetically) drawn that one wonders how much of each character is invented and how much is real.

(I have no idea if Philip Roth even has a brother, or what his parents names are. For all I know, the family in the book is made up entirely.) What is truly amazing is the fact that each character, even minor characters like the aunt and the rabbi she marries, has his own emotional arc that is both realistic and necessary for the overall theme of the book.

Beyond being a powerful personal story about a family in crisis, this is also a truly fascinating look at history. Imagining a wartime America in which Charles Lindbergh, aviation hero and real-life anti-semite, is elected president and subsequently pacts with Hitler's Germany to keep the US out of the war, Roth paints a frighteningly possible-seeming tale of fear and persecution for America's Jews. Although the events get out of hand awfully quickly at the end of the story, the build-up of tension from the point of view of one Jewish family in Newark is so expertly crafted, the final chapters read like a suspense thriller and the denouement is both satisfying and devastating.

Posted by JoshHornik at 05:20 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 08, 2005

The Last Best League by Jim Collins

I have a personal annual tradition. I read a baseball book every year just before the season starts, to get myself ready, remind me why I want to hang in through a 6-month, 162+ game season. Past years' standouts have included the encyclopedic ("Red Sox Century" by Glenn Stout and Richard Johnson), the romantic ("The Teammates" by David Halberstam), and the satiric ("The Great American Novel" by Philip Roth).

This year, I went for the idyllic: "The Last Best League" by Jim Collins. This is a book examining one season with the Chatham A's in the Cape Cod Baseball League, which had the double benefit of getting me excited for not only the baseball season, but also my annual summer vacation to Cape Cod. Mr. Collins, a journalist by trade, spent a year following the team, and seems to have gained incredible access to the players and coaches. The payoff is that the author exhibits a true insider's knowledge of the events of that summer without falling into the trap of inserting himself needlessly into those events. Whether writing about players' inside jokes, coaches personal feelings towards players' attitudes, or scouts' professional opinions on players' prospects, this is the full fly-on-the-wall treatment.

As for the content of the book, Collins set out to describe the experience of the Cape Cod Baseball League, considered the best amateur baseball league in the world and the closest thing to professional baseball. These are the best college players in the country and many (examples: Nomar, Frank Thomas, Barry Zito) have gone on to become all-stars in the majors. Yet, despite the nearness to the millions of dollars in professional baseball, what Collins describes is an atmosphere closer to Little League, where players can have fun playing a game they love and fans can come out on a warm summer night to casually enjoy a game. (Descriptions of the playground just off the right field line teeming with children who tired of the game after 2 innings matched my experience with nephews and niece at Chatham A's games, and my memories of big brother's little league games in Hollis, NH.)

After a difficult off-season, during which I was made painfully aware that professional baseball is a business first and a game second, it was nice to read a book that showed a place where the opposite was true (for most participants). I ate up the passages about children asking for autographs from these college players they've never heard of and will probably not even remember the next summer. I loved the descriptions of Cape Cod life, specifically where baseball fit in among the locals and the tourists. Having seen it first-hand, I know that it is just as idyllic as Collins makes it seem.

Of course, the book would be twice as sappy as Field Of Dreams if that were all the author wrote about, so he does also include the facts of the season's games and the professional prospects for the various players involved. I'm sure the author was disappointed when the A's, perennial league contenders, had an uninspired, below-.500 season, providing little excitement for the game rerporting in his book. But he does a good job inserting a little tension, as the few players he focuses on fall under the watchful eyes (and radar guns) of the pro teams' scouts. Unfortunately, this leads to the inevitable epilogue, in which Collins relates the results of the college draft and how much money each player received in signing bonuses. This final insertion of the business side of pro baseball was an unwelcome ending to a book that otherwise had restored my faith in the National Pastime.

Posted by JoshHornik at 08:47 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack