Vol. 2, Issue #7 April 27th - May 10th, 2007

Tiger Bear From Hell at NONzine.com

By: Wilhelm Murg

So it Goes, Mr.Vonnegut – Last of the Rock Literati

“Oh a sleeping drunkard up in Central park, and a lion-hunter in the jungle dark, and a Chinese dentist, and a British Queen, they fit together in the same machine/ Nice, nice, very nice...so many different people in the same device.”
– Bokonon’s 53rd Calypso by Kurt Vonnegut, from “Cat’s Cradle” (1963)

The recent passing of Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922- April 11, 2007) was a major blow not only to the literary world, but also for pop culture in general. Vonnegut came out during that last blast of literate culture, those three decades before cable went 24/7, and video game systems and video recorders came on the market. Prior to 1980 television went off the air around midnight, so all that was left was reading. Vonnegut’s novels were the closest you could get to a midnight movie, or subversive sketch comedy show in print form. The hippies seemed to think his novels went well with a late night smoke.

Vonnegut’s work was philosophical, in the “Winnie The Pooh” sense, nightmarishly surreal, like the works of William S. Burroughs (they were both heavily influenced by the French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Cèline,) and sixties’ new wave science fiction with a sophisticated post-modern approach that was as groundbreaking and trippy as it was hilarious. While “Slaughterhouse-Five” was about the madness of war, it also dealt with a protagonist who lives his life out of order, including his abduction by space aliens. “Breakfast of Champions” is told partially through the eyes of a man going mad, and then Vonnegut himself appears as a character in the novel and changes reality because, in his own novel, he was “on par with the creator of the universe.”

Vonnegut was a part of the World War II generation - “Slaughterhouse-Five” (“Schlachthof Fünf” in German) was also the building he stayed in during the Dresden firebombing when he was a P.O.W. He liked classical and jazz music, yet his books perfectly fit into the rock world of melting psychedelic posters, anti-war sentiments, and L.S.D.-informed space operas. The progressive rock group Ambrosia set the above “calypso” from “Cat’s Cradle” to music, it became the hit “Nice, Nice, Very Nice.” Paul Kantner, of Jefferson Airplane, attempted to get Vonnegut involved with the promotion of the band’s transformation into Jefferson Starship, but in his Brooks Brothers suit and wing-tipped shoes, Vonnegut politely turned him down. Robert Altman was originally planning to film “Breakfast of Champions” in the 1970s with Alice Cooper playing “Bunny,” the protagonist’s gay son.

None of this was strange at the time because literature was once a part of the rock’n’roll experience, from novels like “Blackboard Jungle” by Evan Hunter, which became the first rock’n’roll film, or Harold Robbins’ “A Stone for Danny Fisher” which became the basis for what many consider Elvis’ finest moment on the big screen, “King Creole.” By the 1960s Bob Dylan’s book “Tarantula,” John Lennon’s “In His Own Write,” and “Yoko Ono’s “Grapefruit” were showing rock stars crossing over to literature, with varying success, while the tomes of left-wing political advocates, like The Yippies Abbie Hoffman, Paul Krassner, and Jerry Rubin, Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, and Feminist Germaine Greer became embedded in the rock culture of protest. Thus you get Rubin appearing with John & Yoko on “The Mike Douglas Show,” poet Allen Ginsberg in the background of Dylan’s famous proto-music video “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and Greer touring with The Rolling Stones.

Literature also got phased into rock; Syd Barrett, who had already named the first Pink Floyd album “Piper at The Gates of Dawn,” from a chapter in Kenneth Grahame’s classic “Wind in The Willows,” set James Joyce’s poem “Golden Hair” to music. Jefferson Airplane released “Rejoyce,” with lyrics made up from random lines from Joyce’s novel “Ulysses,” and their classic “White Rabbit” was a drug anthem inspired by Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass” imagery. Even the biker rock band, Steppenwolf, took their name from a Hermann Hesse novel.

This connection between rock and literature lasted well into the 1980s. David Bowie attempted to make a musical out of George Orwell’s “1984,” but had to set it in a more Burroughsian universe after Orwell’s widow refused to give him the rights – it became the “Diamond Dogs” album. Sting always claimed “Every Breath You Take” was inspired by “1984.” Burroughs himself interviewed Devo for “Trouser Press” magazine and recorded with Laurie Anderson, Material, Kurt Cobain, and Psychic TV. Led Zeppelin was inspired to write “Ramble On,” based on Tolkien’s “Lord of The Rings.” Kate Bush’s first hit, “Wuthering Heights” was based on the Emily Brontë novel. Rush’s “2112 Overture/The Temples of Syrinx” was inspired by the writings of Ann Rynd, and even Billy Idol based “Eyes Without a Face” on a scene from Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls” (The standard joke is “You mean Billy Idol can read?”)

The merging of literature and rock music is still around, but the rock musicians have become the writers, such as Patti Smith, Henry Rollins or Lydia Lunch, rather than taking inspiration from established writers. While getting people to read is always a good thing (said the scribe) literature was made more glamorous by its association with rock. If you pay attention, you’ll discovered rock was an entire culture sitting on the shoulders of the culture that came before it, - and not jut in literature – you have The San Francisco poster artist Wes Wilson picking up where Art Nouveau left off, Frank Zappa inspired by the early 20th century music of Edgar Varèse, and Igor Stravinsky, Toni Basil’s choreography being inspired equally by Martha Graham and high school cheerleading moves, Rob Zombie stealing filmmaking techniques from Hitchcock, and even rock stars turned actors, including Elvis, Bowie, and Mick Jagger, who all owe a heavy debt to the Stanislavsky Method. Once you see the connections, rock culture has “validity” to it (for lack of a better word) as a true force in the latter part of the 20th century.

I would love to see that continue, and it’s happening by merging with film, but we’ll see if it continues to have any literary connections. While DMX is to be commended for starring in “Never Die Alone,” I didn’t notice anyone running out to buy any of Donald Goines’ books (and if you haven’t bought any, you should.)

I probably wouldn’t have been a writer if I hadn’t stumbled onto an except of Vonnegut’s “Slapstick” in a Playboy magazine many decades ago (back when even smut still had a brain and sense of humor.) Starting with that except, Vonnegut showed me that fiction was unlimited, and more importantly, that writers are on par with the creators of universes. Vonnegut’s universe was a literary jungle gym built for a younger generation and it was an amazing one to play in.

Every time someone died in “Slaughterhouse-Five” Vonnegut would follow it with the phrase “so it goes,” so this one’s for Mr. Vonnegut:

“So it goes.”

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