A love letter to The Great American Novel: In the Aeroplane Over The Sea with John Updike and Me
12 Jan 2010
rockfeedback recently received the following missive from long term friend, sometime rfb-contributor and full time bassist in the excellent official secrets act, lawrence diamond. we publish it in full, with the accompanying covering letter, as even though it’s long, occasionally rambling and based far more on personal adoration of obscure indie records than factual analysis... well, those are exactly the things we love about rockfeedback. enjoy the following, hopefully as much as we did – and a big cheers to lawrence.
Rockfeedback recently received the following missive from long term friend, sometime RFB-contributor and full time bassist in the excellent Official Secrets Act, Lawrence Diamond. We publish it in full, with the accompanying covering letter, as even though it’s long, occasionally rambling and based far more on personal adoration of obscure indie records than factual analysis... well, those are exactly the things we love about Rockfeedback. Enjoy the following, hopefully as much as we did – and a big CHEERS to Lawrence.
So i sat down to write this and it took me 3/4 drafts and I'm still not sure if it's just the biggest piece of tosh in the history of writing. I think what I'm trying to say is that the really great alternative American records from the last 30 years (Replacements, REM, Pixies, Sonic Youth, Neutral Milk Hotel, Joanna Newsom, Wilco, Animal Collective) have done the job of painting a picture of the other side of America, the side away from the corporate mainstream, in a way that say novels such as Catcher in The Rye, The Great Gatsby and anything in The New Yorker by Norman Mailer would have done prior to that time. They certainly seem to hold something in them that I identified with when reading all these novels again over Christmas, that say I don't feel when I hear, for example, Rumours or Bridge Over Troubled Water (though they are undoubtedly great records). But there is a distinct possibility I have turned so many knots of punctuation, grammar and vocabulary as to just tie the whole thing into some giant, pretentious, ball of toss!?
And what relevance does it have to anything at the moment other than I felt like writing it and I've been listening to LOADS of NMH and The Decemberists recently?! Oh, and reading loads of John Updike and Donna Tartt?! But then that was probably pretty obvious. Maybe, if you decide that this article has any critical merit (or indeed relevance) you could print this letter as a preamble and maybe add that I've not been getting a lot of sleep recently and that I really like the first 7 R.E.M. albums more than is probably healthy and that all of this stems from that, or that from this. I'm not really sure.
Kind regards and love,
And so begins...
A love letter to The Great American Novel: Neutral Milk Hotel in The Aeroplane Over The Sea with John Updike and Me.
On the 27th of January 2009 the American author John Updike (pictured) passed away at the age of 76. His novels were things of puritan beauty. Perfectly judged prose framed the unfolding narratives of ‘normal’ Americans through the 60s and 70s. Married men adulterated in suburban bedrooms with metronomic regularity, younger men disappeared into hot summer nights then crawled home in the cold glaring truth of morning, wives loved and lost or just upped and left. Meanwhile in the background of it all stood America. Huge, vivid, permanent, but always changing. Anyone who has spent time with one of John Updike’s novels has put it down knowing a little something more about their life or about the nature of who they are.
One of his passing critics lamented that many of the writers who had sprinkled the 20th Century with the “Great American Novels” were now dead. Furthermore that the America that they wrote of, the America of lone highways, five and dime stores, rock and roll, teenage dancing, summer nights and winter snows, was also dead and gone, or at least being read the last rites from coast to coast. In its place came fear of religious wars, the coming of communist China, globalised coffee chains, and a general worldwide scepticism of anything carrying the Stars and Stripes. Hey, even GM motors was going bankrupt. And what is America if not huge beautiful muscle cars?
But sitting down this Christmas listening to records and working my way through some classic Updike and Ford novels (The Rabbit trilogy and The Sportswriter trilogy respectively, both highly recommended) something occurred to me. Perhaps the Great American Novel is still being written. Perhaps men and woman are still putting pen to paper and creating works that frame a time or feeling within their country in a way that profoundly moves people, maybe even changes them. It’s just that they aren’t in the literary supplements and the book store shelves, they are in between the sleeves (or on the hard-drives) of great rock and roll records.
Ok so Rock And Roll isn’t changing the world like it once did for a brief few post war years, but since, let’s say 1980, the great expressions of American Literature seem to have been on two sides of (high) acetate.
While The Secret History and Rules Of Attraction seemed to show the sleazy, dark destruction of 80s greed on the coming men and woman of America, Sorry Ma, I Forgot to Take Out the Trash by The Replacements and Fables Of The Reconstruction by R.E.M showed a new independent young America of broken homes, house parties, poems to young lovers and fear at what came before and what might be coming next. This independent spirit ran through into The Pixies and Husker Du who both made records that in their scope and ideas could surely be seen as “Great American Novels”. Through the 90s Alternative stormed the mainstream, and records by The Lemonheads, Sonic Youth and, hell yeah, even Nirvana seemed to say everything about a certain part of America that 20 years ago may well have found its strongest voice in the pages of a novel. As that decade turned to the next music seemed once again to be capturing the way the wind was blowing in America. If you can name a piece of art that crystallises the fears and hopes of men, woman and lovers in a post 9/11 world better than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco then I will salute you and clean your shoes for free.
Others, many of who don’t seem to sell many records (well, at least not in the way they may once have), continue to make such recordings through to today. Joanna Newsom captures a soaring female spirit with a timeless quality that still seems to feel as if it could only come from a 21st Century woman, while The Hold Steady show that there will always be boys who drink too much and feel love just a little keenly for it to be healthy. (If novels could sue bands for plagiarism I would love to be council for Catcher In The Rye Vs The Hold Steady) And if Merriweather Post Pavilion isn’t a Great American Novel in scope and breadth then let’s just cancel the whole shooting match and go home. Of course you could even do what The Decemberists do and just set whole novels to music and somehow make it sound like the most obvious wonderful thing in the world.
I always feel that a great novel has altered me in some way, changed how I feel or think about something, or haunted my thoughts in such a way that I just can’t shake it free. As a suburban boy from West London these amazing, romantic vivid books that detailed the lives of children and adults from this huge country across the Atlantic always hit me hardest. They made me sigh with wonder, they made me question truths once held dear, and more than anything they caused me to lose sleep over half remembered memories conjured deep from within their pages. Scenes and characters from their pages would run through my mind while I slept or day-dreamed, throwing out questions and answers that would freeze for seconds in front of me then disappear the minute I tried to put them down in concrete.
That’s why this winter, while I sat reading book after book on seemingly endless train journey’s back and forth across Britain, chasing a meeting with an old friend, a final gig of the year in some town not quite near but not quite far away, or simply trying to get home for Christmas, I realised that the greatest American Novel I’ve ever come across is In The Aeroplane Over The Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel.
In a way it’s not even about America. It’s a concept album about Anne Frank, WW2 and death, but it just feels, smells and sounds like a part of America that would normally only be present in a novel by a man such as John Updike. That it was written and performed by members of the Elephant 6 collective, who spent one whole summer living in a big house taking far too many hallucinogens while having happy fried sex with friends and lovers seems to say something very right and true about alternative America. That is sold nearly no copies on its release but slowly and surely grew into a huge word of mouth hit to the point that R.E.M. wanted to take the band on the road with them to play arenas also seems to tell me some truth about this world that can’t help but make me smile. Just don’t ask me what it is. Also that it’s just an album of such crazy unfiltered passion with no pretension or design to its execution makes me smile so much. All that without saying anything for the fact I lost hours of sleep on buying it due to its haunting melodies and, let’s face it, insane lyrics. Here are just a few thoughts that fly through my brain every time I hear it; Lost weekends with my first love at a winter seaside town, walks by a frosty river at night with only moonlight to see by, drinking sessions with friends that last far far too long, lone strummed chords on broken guitars in foreign bedrooms.
John Updike said of his work “I think of the books on the library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teenaged boy finding them, and having them speak to him”. For me, many of the great records of the last 30 years, and in particular Mr Magnum’s deranged beautiful masterpiece, have had that affect on me. American Alternative Rock And Roll is The New Great American Novelist. It is a bold flame they carry, but they carry it well.