Pale Wire (Popscene)

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Fueled by a series of coffee binges at a local cafe, I charged my way through a pair of memoirs over the weekend: One by long-time Times theater critic and political columnist Frank Rich and the other by film critic and poet Geoffrey O'Brien.

The books have much in common. Both New Yorkers, Rich and O'Brien recount their youths through the lens of each's abiding passion, music. For Rich, the spectacle of Broadway's golden age is presented as an escape hatch for a young boy struggling to deal with the stigma and confusion of growing up in a "broken home." For O'Brien, pop music is the background music and bit player in a host of childhood memories, rites of passage and fanciful flights of imagination.

Though, as much as I might try to force the pair into an awkward tango, they remain very different books.

Rich is a newspaper man. And his book reads like it.
I was seeing my first Broadway show by myself, with my own ticket bought with my own money. When it was over, I decided I wouldn't rush right to the hotel: I stood outside the same stage door where Mom, Polly and I had once waited in van to be greeted by Judy Holliday, and joined the few other stragglers who asked the exiting cast members to sign their programs. After getting a single autograph, I found myself distracted, studying the actors as they streamed out of the theater to go wherever they were going before that night's performance; I wanted to see how they dressed, how they spoke, how they walked — I didn't care how they signed their names. I noticed that while they wore ordinary clothes when they emerged into Shubert Alley, they moved with a speed and a sense of purpose that set them apart from the audience members who blocked their paths. It was as if the actors belonged to a world exclusively their own, which they were in a hurry to get to for the few hours until they became part of the I Can Get It for You Wholesale family again.

O'Brien, the author of such sumptuous fever dreams as The Phantom Empire and Dream Time, is more Billboard than Broadway. And he's at his best not when he's reading from the teleprompter but when shocked off on a wooly waxing on pop as a flickering, fleeting reflection that evokes memories — both real and imagined — inspires confessionals, offers consolation and rewards with catharsis.
Our record collections are libraries not only of lost sensations but of lost ideas, lost theories about the nature of things. A fragile metaphysic—the gossamer speculations of a stretched-out and mostly pleasurable afternoon—was sustained, perhaps provoked, by certain chord changes. Now all we have are the chord changes. We value them inordinately because they are connected to something even more valuable that we can't quite have but can only approximate through this token, like the uniquely suggestive bit of driftwood carried home from Montauk so as to import the seaside to Second Avenue. The effect is all the more frustrating because most of these ideas and understandings were never spelled out in the first place. They hovered in the air around the record player. There was perhaps a smile of mute assent, mute because it did not seem necessary at the time to speak. Instead we communicated through our selection of tracks, like in the Godard movie where the quarreling lovers carry on a conversation by pointing to the titles of books.

I'd highly recommend both books.