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Contemporary groups covered include Magnetic Fields (their love songs), Wilco (the band's and Jeff Tweedy's evolution), Danielson Famile (an evangelical rock band), The Pogues (Shane McGowan's problems with addiction), The Lounge Lizards (John Lurie's brilliance), and Meredith Monk, who once recorded a song inspired by Rick Moody's story "Boys." Always both incisive and personable, these pieces inspire us to dive as deeply into the music that enhances our lives as Moody has done--and introduces us to wonderful sounds we may not know.
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Here’s a passage I have always loved, from Molloy, by Samuel Beckett: I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had finished sucking it. Thus there were still four stones in each of my four pockets, but not quite the same stones. And when the desire to suck took hold of me again, I drew again on the right pocket of my greatcoat, certain of not taking the same stone as the last time. And while I sucked it I rearranged the other stones in the way I have just described. And so on.
And here’s another, from Varieties of Disturbance, by Lydia Davis: When I describe this conversation to my husband, I cause in him feelings of disturbance also, stronger than mine and different in kind from those in my mother, in my father, and respectively claimed and anticipated by them. My husband is disturbed by my mother’s refusing my brother’s help and thus causing disturbance in him, and by her telling me of her disturbance and thus causing in me disturbance greater, he says, than I realize, but also more generally by the disturbance caused more generally not only in my brother by her but also in me by her greater than I realize, and more often than I realize, and when he points this out, it causes in me yet another disturbance different in kind and in degree from that caused in me by what my mother has told me, for this disturbance is not only for myself and my brother, and not only for my father in his anticipated and his present disturbance, but also and most of all for my mother herself, who has now, and has generally, caused so much disturbance, as my husband rightly says, but is herself disturbed by only a small part of it.
These passages have in common not only their beauty, their attenuation, their long lines, their complexity, which are estimable in an era of prose that grows ever more abbreviated, ever more fragmentary; these passages also have in common that the prose writers who fashioned them were (are, in Lydia Davis’s case) musicians. Beckett played piano avidly. And Lydia Davis, like Beckett, is a lifelong player of keyboard music and an advocate of the musical classics.
There are many such examples among writers of literature. James Joyce was a gifted singer, as was Thomas Bernhard, who was held back in music by the fact of his tuberculosis. Allen Ginsberg played the harmonium. Nicholson Baker, the author of The Mezzanine, Double Fold, Human Smoke, and other works of startling diversity, studied music composition when he was an undergraduate at Haverford. George Saunders, also a stylist of a most limpid prose, is a guitar player of some note; Myla Goldberg, author of Bee Season, plays flute, banjo, and accordion; Paul Muldoon, the excellent Irish poet, writes songs and plays rhythm guitar in a band. David Gates, of Jernigan fame, plays old time and is learning the pedal steel guitar. There is my friend the novelist Wesley Stace, who also plays music and records under his stage name, John Wesley Harding. Wells Tower, noted short-story writer, played in a band; Jonathan Lethem wrote lyrics for any number of musical projects. Nick Cave, the Australian musician, writes novels and screenplays, and his novel-writing voice, far from being declarative and untutored, despite the absence of an MFA, is rich, decadent, and full of linguistic excesses of just the sort I admire. And that’s just off the top of my head.
There is a link, I mean to suggest, between literary writing and music—a very specific link, a link of great relevance, which finds itself in the fact that literary writing is an aural phenomenon, though it appears on the page. The origin of literature is in the oral tradition, in what is spoken. That is, literature that avoids its sonic register does so at its peril. Literature that never lived in someone’s mouth, or someone’s ear, is desiccated literature. And that’s part of why a lot of writers have also played music (leaving aside the fact that music is delightful and it often gets you out of the house). Playing music encourages you to listen more closely, playing music makes you more concerned with the musical component of your prose, and for my money, this makes you a more interesting writer, a writer who is not engaged with how a page looks or how a plot advances itself but is engaged instead with how a line sounds in the ear, how it gets sung.
As I say several times in the essays that follow, my house, growing up, was not musically erudite, but it was musically passionate. For this I owe my mother a great debt, as she had been schooled in piano from her earliest childhood and could make her way through some Debussy with real grace. She sang, too, and does to this day. My sister played guitar, not terribly well (she didn’t practice enough), but because she was three years older than I, she was the recipient of much attention around the house—attention verging on adulation—for her picking away at “What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?” on her nylon-stringed guitar, circa 1969. Even my father had a couple of songs in his piano repertoire, and he had friends who liked to come around our place in the suburbs and bang on the baby grand, mangling show tunes. Show tunes! Those abominations that indicated a certain upwardly mobile artistic appreciation in the fifties and sixties. My family had all of those recordings, from South Pacific to Man of La Mancha to 1776, and on the slightly drunken nights, my parents and their friends could often be heard warbling away at “The Impossible Dream” or “Send in the Clowns.”
Though we sang a lot, it didn’t really occur to me that I might study music myself until I was in middle school and my parents were divorced, and my mother, among her other melancholy preoccupations, was attempting to learn Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” which, though I was mostly interested in the Top 40 of the time (the early seventies), I found mysterious, austere, and beautiful. That and Scott Joplin, who was experiencing a renaissance (owing to the score for The Sting), converted me into a music student briefly. Well, I remember also that we had weekly assemblies in the auditorium of my middle school and that a great number of these assemblies involved certain kinds of musical performance—African music, big bands, marching bands, music that was considered beneath contempt by my friends. I could not hide the way I reacted when there was music around, whether with tapping feet, or with impulsive singing, or with jubilation more egregious. Perhaps there were even shameful tears, because there were songs and varieties of music (bagpipes!) that caused weeping, and I can’t really list all of these, because weeping to music ought to be a private affair, a tendency that I wasn’t always sure I wanted people to know about. And so I prepared myself to try to learn something about music.
This involved, at this juncture, the piano, and a Russian guy who taught in a little office building in downtown New Canaan, Connecticut. And because I found the whole thing intimidating, embarrassing—being alone in a room with the Russian guy—because all my worldly, suburban friends thought that piano playing was somehow unmasculine, I was powerfully casual about my lessons (and I am embarrassed to say this, but I was twelve); there was the skipping of the recital on the day of the big town fair in New Canaan, after which I made up one story for my mother and another story for the Russian, who in due course sent home a note to my mother observing that though I had musical aptitude I didn’t practice or give anything back at all. Soon the lessons lapsed. As the violin lessons had lapsed in the fourth grade, as the singing lessons lapsed the next year (when I was thirteen), as the piano lessons started and lapsed again (when I was seventeen), as the violin started and lapsed again (when I was forty-three).
What remained was passionate listening. These essays, which were composed over so many years now, nearly fifteen years, are a record of that pursuit, and they return to the site of the first revelation of music as though there really were a first revelation and not an entire lifetime of listening. These essays try to explain what it is that so overwhelms this writer in song and instrumental music. It bears mentioning: the inability to stop trying to explain this imprinting, this mark that music has made on me, is why some of these pieces are longer than essays normally are. I can’t stop. What these songs have done to me, in remaking me, is open me up to certain kinds of feelings and perceptions, even when much of what’s in the world opposes any opening up at all.
Literature, exactly like certain moments in song—like that moment in “Hey Jude” when the Beatles get ready to sing the long coda, like that moment in “Celebrated Summer,” by Hüsker Dü, when the acoustic guitar breaks through the wall of noise for a minute and reminds you that it’s recollection that the song recommends unto you—literature, like music, wants openness, wants experiences, experiences of consciousness, experiences of sensation, and it wants these described in a way that is felicitous and sweet. Sweetness, gracefulness, these must be auditory phenomena when we are talking about prose, and if English is not the handsomest tongue, it has its moments, and these moments are literary moments or they are moments of song, and we are improved in these instances, made more charitable, more generous, and the two are therefore the same phenomena, music and literature, or so it seems to this writer, as if there is a certain order in these things, an order such as what J. S. Bach thought he heard when he made, over a great many years, what he so laboriously made. Literary effects are like harmonic intervals are like metrical feet are like time signatures are like cycles per second.
I always return to writing—in the harder moments; I come back to these alphanumerical keys here, as if it’s only with words that I can make sense of the travails of consciousness. And yet when I come back to these keys, I find that music often comes with me. Much has changed, and the kinds of things I’m listening to are nothing like what I loved when I was first listening to the AM transistor radio under the sheet; now I find that sentimentality always drives me off, and a lot of what I like is music that most people would find hard to enjoy, but the experience is the same; I could still easily pass a whole night just spinning tunes on the stereo, and I could talk the ear off a friend, indulging in the little shades of differences between certain approaches to the popular song, certain recordings. I feel very excited and happy when I encounter a person with whom I can go on in this way, and you, consumer of books, are that person today.
The suspended fourth! Why so beautiful? The major seventh! Why so beautiful? And how do these instances of sonic beauty relate to that paragraph from Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” that struck such a chord with me back when I read it in my undergraduate years (She thought of the endless waves of pain that for some reason or other she and her husband had to endure; of the invisible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable fashion; of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness, which is either crushed, or wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners; of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer and helplessly have to watch the shadow of his simian stoop leave mangled flowers in its wake, as the monstrous darkness approaches), though Nabokov himself professed a nearly complete estrangement from music? Now that I have been playing music more seriously for almost ten years, in a band, now that I know a tiny bit more about the architecture of the song, I am even more helpless in my admiration. And this book is my attempt to compile my musical affiliations and, in the explaining, to say to other passionate listeners, Did you hear this? And did you hear it the way I heard it? And isn’t it amazing? And do you have in your collection similar things that I should hear too? I can think of no better place to put all these obsessions than in this volume. The best books are like albums of songs. Books and albums are of one vital substance. And I hope that vital substance is apparent here.
DISCLAIMERS FIRST! Whatever cool is or was—that term bandied about relentlessly from the 1950s to the present (by teens, by hipsters, by cultural critics, by baby boomers), that term which lately concludes many arrangements made between young people (“So I’ll see you on St. Marks Place at seven? Cool”)—I, your narrator, do not now consider myself cool and never have been cool. As a teenager, when questions about cool are at their most rigorous, when a lack of cool implies the possibility of future psychotherapy, I wore Levi’s corduroys in the rainbow shades—yellow cords, red cords, powder-blue cords; I wore flannel slacks, Oxford button-downs, tweed jackets; my hair was not long enough to be beatnik or short enough to be clean-cut, and it poofed in ways that best recall Michael Landon during the Little House on the Prairie years; I liked to mix plaids; I loved my parents and was all broken up about the divorce; I preferred, where music was concerned, Cat Stevens, Yes, Jethro Tull, and other bands even more embarrassing to enumerate, when all around me was Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones; I went to boarding school; I came from the suburbs; I read science fiction—for example, Frank Herbert’s Dune trilogy, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, everything Kurt Vonnegut ever published; I cried easily, was sentimental, loved New England autumns, made elaborate protestations of love from my high school radio show, fell in love as swiftly as I contracted head colds. In an area of inquiry where credibility is everything, where credentials are essential, where any deviation from this orthodoxy of the unstated and recondite is actionable, I was and am an interloper. I am, in fact, uncool.
This fact suggests an initial axiom on the subject: If you have to talk about cool, you are not it.
Second disclaimer: There is no Platonic category of coolness. As with what movies endure (your Forrest Gump is my One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or vice versa), as with what novels define an era, what is cool is often in dispute, quickly outmoded, neglected soon thereafter. The very proposition that we might say what cool exactly denotes is risky, inadvisable from the outset, since cool, in a sort of pop culture version of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, alters what it pleasing finds. This book or record or movie or trend, hitherto cool, becomes precipitously irrelevant in the inexorable march of time. Cool, therefore, is not a moral question (like what is virtuous or what is beautiful), although its slipperiness may be of interest. Cool, in fact, is probably more easily reckoned by its absences than its presences (Del Close and John Brent made the same point on their 1959 Mercury album, How to Speak Hip: “It’s easier to say what isn’t cool”). Would we not all agree that if a school of thought or a trend becomes the subject of a feature in Sixteen or People or in like purveyors of mass trends, it is clearly no longer cool? Would we not agree that whatever cool is, it is not what the Sears catalogue once said was fashionable (foul-weather gear, camouflage pants), nor is cool apparent, in even the most infinitesimal degree, in the complete output of Michael Bolton, Barry Manilow, or Barbra Streisand, unless, and this is surely a disagreeable possibility, irony is cool?
Yet, as was once noted of the pornographic, don’t we know it when we see it? We do. We do know cool when we see it. Or we can get pretty close. And therefore a discussion of its history is potentially useful. Because in an absence of clearly delineated American ethics, in a period of cultural relativism, in a political environment in which both American parties have amplified their rhetoric to such a degree that the other side is beneath contempt, in which religion seems no longer able to rationally or effectively deploy its messages except through moral intimidation or force, in which families are no longer the ethical bulwarks they felt themselves to be in the past—in such a millennial instant, cool has become the system of ethics for the young in America. Cool, it seems, is one thing that kids believe in. Cool is what they talk about, cool is what motivates them, cool is what they occasionally live and die for, at least in some precincts. So what are they saying, these kids, when they say something is cool?
Well, the OED gives us early Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon derivations for the word: cólian, cole (as in Merlin, or the early history of King Arthur, circa 1450: “As they that wolde ride in the cole of the mornynge”); colen, kola, cule, cull, coole (Coverdale, 1535: “Like as the winter coole in the harvest”), prior to our first modern usages (as in Addison, 1713: “But see where Lucia,… / Amid the cool of yon high marble arch, / Enjoys the noon-day breeze”). The word was in play throughout the nineteenth century, first as a description of temperature and then figuratively as a term (noun or verb) that might connote mood as well, as in Lord Macaulay’s History of England (1848): “The lapse of time which cools the ardour of friends whom he has left behind”; it also turned up as a synonym for impudence, in, e.g., Durivage and Burnham’s Stray Subjects (1846): “You are the coolest specimen of a genuine scamp that it has ever been my ill luck to meet with.” There were any number of slang idioms making use of cool: cooling one’s coppers, in which we treat the dehydration from a prior night’s drinking; cooling the heels, or waiting, dating back to the mid-eighteenth century; cool as a cucumber, from 1700 on; a cool sum of money (a cool million, e.g.), from the 1720s; cool pleasure, from the 1820s on, as in Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)—“ He took a cool pleasure in stripping the Indians of their horses”—and cool crape, which has connoted a funeral shroud since the early nineteenth century. Perhaps it’s not church or door in the pantheon of often-employed Anglo-Saxon words; nonetheless cool has had a real popularity since the dawn of our tongue.
The contemporary usage, the one with which we’re concerned here, seems to date from the end of World War II (only ninety years or so after Lord Macaulay) and, like so many twentieth-century English-language phenomena, to find its initial articulation on this side of the Atlantic in popular culture. In particular, what was cool, after the globe had finished its convulsions, was a moment in the history of jazz. In the late 1940s, Miles Davis, who was until then most prominently known as a sideman in Charlie Parker’s band, convened an ensemble, with Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan as arrangers (Davis and Evans would later go on to work on seminal orchestral jazz albums like Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain), designed to address some problems with the form in which they were working. The Miles Davis Nonet, as it came to be known, featured six horns (trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, alto and baritone sax), piano, bass, and drums, and was conceived as a reaction against bebop. This bebop style, which was preeminently influential at the same time and which is credited mainly to Davis’s former boss, Charlie Parker, and to Dizzy Gillespie, was fast and technically virtuosic, as Davis himself points out in his autobiography, Miles: “Bird and Diz played this hip, real fast thing, and if you weren’t a fast listener, you couldn’t catch the humor or the feeling in their music…. Bird and Diz were great, fantastic, challenging—but they weren’t sweet.”
Davis’s nonet, and the sessions that came out of it, had a different intent. Sweetness and melody were their ambition, a less fiery tone. The results, dubbed Birth of the Cool by Pete Rugolo, an A&R man at Davis’s record company, were, according to no less an authority than Count Basie, “slow and strange but good, really good.” Davis himself says, “We shook people’s ears a little softer than Bird or Diz did, took the music more mainstream. That’s all it was.” Davis sees this softness in the Birth of the Cool sessions as a gambit to ensure the safety of white listeners in an idiom that was primarily African American, but this seems now to understate unnecessarily the accomplishments of Birth of the Cool. The jazz of Miles Davis’s nonet is evocative in its restraint, is supple and sure-footed, both in the composed passages and in the way Davis’s solos eschew vibrato and begin to articulate the vulnerability and the ferocity that came to characterize his playing later. This jazz is cool, then, in Davis’s devotion to expression first, to the emotional center of jazz, rather than to athleticism, rather than to mastery of an instrument.
Would Rugolo’s offhand title for the nonet sessions be the first reference to this ubiquitous term as we hear it so much these days? There are a lot of opinions on the subject. Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English gives the sense of cool as “good and modern” as a term in jazz circles since 1945, but can give no source but an article from the Observer of 1956. Partridge also offers cool as “(of a singer) slow and husky,” since 1948, or coeval with the Miles Davis sessions. Harper’s Magazine, in an article of 1950, is meanwhile hip to the craze, noting “the Bop musician’s use of ‘cool’ instead of ‘hot’ as a word of the highest praise.” But this usage may predate the Davis sessions by years, as in Charlie Parker’s 1947 recording of “Cool Blues,” or in Doris Day’s 1941 recording of J. P. Johnson’s “Keep Cool, Fool.” Gary Giddins says, “Black musicians in the 1930s used cool in the literal sense, to contain feeling, to play with restraint.” Still, toward midcentury, jazz and popular music begin to affect the meaning of the word cool finally and permanently, so that Macaulay or Addison would have been surprised by its connotation à la mode. Partridge makes this transition abundantly clear, quoting F. E. L. Priestley: “Cool became a word of praise when hot ceased to be one; that is, when hot jazz went out of fashion to be displaced by bop or bebop, a later—a ‘progressive’ or ‘modern jazz.’ ”
There’s an implicit cultural fusion in this way of speaking. That is, a white arranger and A&R man (Rugolo) coins the term to describe sessions by a black musician (Davis), who is himself attempting a music that fuses elements of a black idiom (jazz, and especially the style and form of bebop) with a white style (a jazz slower and more given to melody than to loose improvisation). This is the way words are generated in America, I’m trying to say, by use and reuse, by experiment and malapropism, across a great spectrum of cultures and subcultures and communities (“hot” jazz originated in France, and “cool” jazz was reactively American), and so in this usage jazz serves not only as the locus for the meaning of the word cool, but also as a laboratory for the way in which the term gets disseminated: spontaneously, loosely in an improvisatory fashion, as a delineator of passions and moods and styles. Which is to say that if cool is an example, our American popular argot is now finally multiethnic and vigorous across boundaries of race, class, and religion. We chatter, and chatter is good, and in the groove of chatter words become flexible and porous and intoxicating, and they perform a breathy ars nova.
Given this kind of energy coming out of the jazz world (there wasn’t rock and roll yet), it’s not surprising that the next group to champion the term cool and to make it a part of the daily language, at least according to myth, was a mostly white group of writers and thinkers who brought to the term a long-lasting value and meaning in the margins of postwar America. I mean the Beats. Those coiners and harvesters of new locutions, of hip and gone cat, etc. Their appearance in American culture had quite a bit to do with cool.
Oddly, though, Jack Kerouac, who in 1948 articulated the term beat to describe his generation (borrowing it from Herbert Huncke), infrequently employed the word cool himself. Using up-to-the-minute and very cool technology—a recent CD-ROM publication on Kerouac and the Beats entitled A Jack Kerouac ROMnibus—I have been able to do a full-scale search on the appearance of the term in a large sampling of Kerouac works. Although I can find few appearances in selections of his poems, or in selections from The Subterraneans or The Town and the City, his later work, The Dharma Bums, does have eight incidental appearances of the word cool, seven of which are used in connection with weather descriptions (“The trail would suddenly come into a cool shady part” or “Then as it got cool in the late afternoon” [italics mine]). Only one passage seems tangentially to address the issue of contemporary cool, yet it is far from conclusive: “Whenever people dropped in to visit us at the cottage, I’d always put my red bandana over the little wall lamp and put out the ceiling light to make a nice cool red dim scene to sit and drink wine and talk in.” (By way of a control sample, I also checked for the word hip in Dharma Bums—three mentions, of which two had to do with an anatomical part—and the word beat, of which all eight mentions had to do with drumming or fistfights.) I did find, however, that the Viking Press advertisement for Dharma Bums used the word cool in its plot summary, in the contemporary fashion: “They come swinging down to San Francisco—hot girls and cool jazz, to wild parties and wild poets…”
Meanwhile, in a passage toward the end of On the Road—Kerouac’s sloppy, joyous, and fabulously passionate rant about youth in the late forties—the author does begin to articulate what cool might mean in a broader, nonmusical context, apart from the idiom of jazz. The passage in question takes place in chapter four, in the third section of the book, which begins with encomiums about the jazz written and played then by African Americans. Black jazz. The scene is San Francisco (to which city “cool” jazz migrated later in its existence) and features Dean Moriarity (a.k.a. Neal Cassady, who in any true account of cool must be said to carry the torch from the Beat years to the “hippie” enclave of Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, and the Grateful Dead) and Sal Paradise, a.k.a. Kerouac. Here they are visiting a jazz club on the Barbary Coast:
Out we jumped in the warm, mad night, hearing a wild tenorman bawling horn across the way…. The behatted tenorman was blowing at the peak of a wonderfully satisfactory free idea, a rising and falling riff that went from “EE-yah!” to a crazier “EE-de-lee-yah!”… Uproars of music and the tenorman had it and everybody knew he had it.
What is the celebrated it of this formulation? Kerouac doesn’t take up the question right away, because he is busy with further descriptions of jazz soloing: “The tenorman hauled back and stamped his foot and blew down a hoarse, laughing blast, and drew breath, and raised the horn and blew high, wide, and screaming in the air…. Dean was in a trance.” And later, during a ballad: “Here we were dealing with the pit and prune-juice of poor beat life itself in the God-awful streets of man, so the tenorman said it and sang it, ‘Close—your—’ and blew it way up to the ceiling and through the stars and on out—‘Ey-y-y-y-y-y-es.’ ” The values of jazz, the intangible values of the music, abstractions about spontaneity and feeling, are in the process of being transferred by Kerouac from the music onto the players of the music. What’s cool about jazz has become a characteristic of jazzmen. This becomes clearer as the scene begins to involve carousing around town with the aforementioned tenorman (“Yes! Ain’t nothin I like better than good kicks!”) rather than listening to him play. Here, as in Kerouac’s fanciful prose, jazz becomes a way of life rather than a musical idiom; jazz is a process, jazz is a series of intentions, jazz is a style.
Thus, in the next scene, cool does turn up—in a nascent stage—and it’s during a rather homophobic passage (though “Carlo Marx,” the Ginsberg character, and “Old Bull Lee,” who stands in for William Burroughs, as well as Neal Cassady and perhaps even Kerouac himself, were practicing homosexuals with varying frequency, Kerouac was certainly not gone enough yet to find gay life cool):
We saw a horrible sight in the bar: a white hipster fairy had come in wearing a Hawaiian shirt and was asking the big drummer if he could sit in…. The fairy sat down at the tubs and they started the beat of a jump number and he began stroking the snares with soft goofy bop brushes, swaying his neck with that complacent Reichi-analyzed ecstasy that doesn’t mean anything except too much tea and soft foods and goofy kicks on the cool order. But he didn’t care. He smiled joyously into space and kept the beat.
A similar and less troubling usage appears in a 1950 letter from Kerouac to Cassady: “A raw mind and a cool mind are two different minds. The raw mind is usually associated with the physical life, whether athletic, work, or just beat… ; the cool mind is the intellectual emphasis and the physical counterpart of it is a kind of gracefulness… a gracefulness that is almost effeminate.”
Cool here mirrors the difficulties of the “cool” jazz style after Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool. What is cool, after Miles moved on to his Gil Evans collaborations and then on to his terrific quintet (with John Coltrane et al.), is what’s white, what’s deracinated, what’s goofy, perverse, cerebral. The jazz of Chet Baker, with (as Gary Giddins puts it) “his movie-star good looks”; Dave Brubeck’s academic, intellectual jazz: odd time signatures and Middle Eastern modalities. And yet, despite these judgments, directly after Kerouac’s brief invocation of the term cool in chapter four of On the Road, he takes on, at last, the task of defining the “it” his tenorman “had” at the opening of the passage, for the simple reason that these values—cool and the ineffable IT—are related, are harmonious, are consonant:
I wanted to know what “IT” meant. “Ah well”—Dean laughed—“now you’re asking me impon-der-ables—ahem! Here’s a guy and everybody’s there, right?… All of a sudden somewhere in the middle of the chorus he gets it—everybody looks up and knows, and they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He’s filling empty space with the substance of our lives, confessions of his belly button strain, remembrance of ideas, rehashes of old blowing. He has to blow across bridges and come back and do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows it’s not the tune that counts but IT.”
“Then,” Kerouac says, “I begin talking; I never talked so much in my life.”
This is cool, finally, in its transitional moment, in which it is embodied in Kerouac; he is cool, IT is cool; and cool crests, perhaps not yet in the explicitly modern usage of the word, but rather as a way of carrying oneself, a way of marking an attitude that extends beyond language and the capacity of language to denote, that preempts the civilizing and hypocritical layers of straight culture, that focuses instead on a deportment, an ephemeral and unstable aspect, a perfume of the infinite, a wisp of the spiritual, in which improvisation and spontaneity enable numinous predisposition, access to the ether. IT’s not a product or an extract or a medication; IT is cool, and cool is an approach characterized by feeling, by passions, and you find it in the riotous voice of Kerouac’s narratives, as well as in the riffing of Ginsberg’s poems in the later fifties. Among his catalogue of great minds destroyed by madness are included “angelheaded hipsters”:
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels
staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating…
As you also find cool in the withering comedy of William Burroughs, in his lapsed idealism (as Mary McCarthy put it); even the opening of Naked Lunch (1959), in its recoiling from the warmth, seems to prefigure the rising of cool as a reptilian cultural imperative: “I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train.” Heat is slang for the authorities (dating to about 1936, according to Partridge, or only slightly ahead of the whole “hot” and “cool” jazz issue), but here it’s heat that is opposed by the narrator, and this narrator is cool—as any reader would agree who has drifted through the icy nightmare of Naked Lunch, one of the century’s great examples of sangfroid. Yet it is also a novel beautiful and irate in its melancholy:
America is not a young land; it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting. And always cops: smooth college-trained state cops, practiced, apologetic patter, electronic eyes weigh your car and luggage, clothes and face; snarling big city dicks, soft-spoken country sheriffs with something black and menacing in old eyes color of a faded gray flannel shirt.
Burroughs, that “gone cat” in On the Road, opposes the power of the state with the renegade but slightly detached passions of individuals. Cool individuals. The state usually wins, but the logic, as in Kerouac and Ginsberg, is passionately individualistic. Thus, in Burroughs we get an implied articulation of cool as (again according to Partridge) “retaining compete control—or so the addict believes—while ‘turned on’ (drug exhilarated)” and, by extension, staying cool when the cops come for the bust.
I loved this Beat writing as a young reader. The velocity and spirit, the opposition to the stuffiness of academic writing (to the monolithic sobriety of New Criticism), the sheer, dizzy glee. What the great Beat writers did for American letters was appropriate America’s one truly indigenous music form, jazz, and fuse the lessons of that music with the transcendentalism that had been irrigating American literature for a century. The Beats yoked Miles and Bird to Whitman and Emerson. And by the late fifties and sixties, the cool Beat idiom had become as frankly spiritual as its transcendentalist models. The theme becomes explicit in their work, as in Kerouac’s 1960 journal entry: “Anybody can become a ‘hipster’ O Mailer… Broyard,… et al., but even the dumbest college kid who believes in God is beat, beatific and blessed.” Unfortunately, the ambition concealed in this “transcendentalist” message was ultimately lost on Kerouac: the later journal entries, from the mid-to late sixties, by which time he was drinking around the clock, are grueling to read, it must be said. Kerouac squandered his talent fantastically. Perhaps the process (“First thought, best thought,” as Ginsberg said) and the freedom of Beat activity, the blissful singularity of it, couldn’t be sustained for long. Both Burroughs and Kerouac (and Cassady later) resorted to considerable amounts of drugs to catalyze their work, and the cost was the highest of all costs. They left their best work behind while young.
Meanwhile, cool, through its relationship to the movement of the Beats, began to assume its new shape in other efforts. For example, in the person of Gwendolyn Brooks, an African American poet writing in 1959: “We real cool. We / Left school. We / Lurk late. We / Strike straight.” Or in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, adapting (in 1958) the narrative of Christ’s passion to a Beat vocabulary: “You’re hot / they tell him / And they cool him / They stretch him on the Tree to cool / And everybody after that / is always making models / of this Tree /… Only he don’t come down / from His Tree / Him just hang there / on His Tree / looking real Petered out / and real cool.” In Ferlinghetti’s poem (which, in earlier stanzas, also makes use of hip and cat in the retelling of the Galilean odyssey) all the possible cools intersect, the cooling-down cool, the cool of jazz, “the cool of self-possession,” as Partridge gives it. The Lamb of God unites meanings, makes contemporary slang stick, as in Kerouac’s beatification of the Beat. Jesus Christ, one cool, hep cat.
By 1960, though, the Beats, with their jazz and their tea and their smack and their cross-country driving escapades, were like Neanderthals in the era of the Cro-Magnon. Something had happened in the intervening years, something had diverted the fickle attentions of young people, and I mean, of course, the idiot bastard cousin of “cool” jazz or bebop—the dread menace of rock and roll. Antimusic, devil’s spawn. Music of hellions. If jazz was a fertile crescent for American colloquial language, rock and roll, its very name a slang term for getting it on, would prove to be a hothouse, a bop a loo bop a lop bam boom. From rock and roll and its culture came terminology like boogie, boogaloo, doo-wop, shang-a-lang, mojo, punk, bump and grind, hardcore, hip-hop, and grunge, and many other manic turns of phrase, sacred and profane. Therefore, rock and roll has much to say about cool.
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who (in the period before artists wrote their own material) were the preeminent mythicists and fabulators of rock and roll, invoked the sociology of cool occasionally. Cool is in one of their hits written for Elvis Presley, “Fools Fall in Love”: “Fools fall in love in a hurry /… Oh! They got their love torches burning / When they should be playing it cool”; and it’s in one of their finer tunes for the black vocal group the Coasters, “Three Cool Cats” (a prominent early cover for the Beatles): “Three cool cats… / Parked on the corner in a beat-up car / … Three cool chicks… / Are walking down the street.” Danny and the Juniors, in the 1958 number one “At the Hop,” had a little to say about cool—“You can swing it, you can groove it / You can really start to move it at the hop / Where the jockey is the smoothest / And the music is the coolest”—as did the Del Vikings in their 1957 hit, “Cool Shake.” And if you’ll pardon a few anachronistic examples, I can finish the catalogue: the Beatles lifted the “playing it cool” formulation from “Fools Fall in Love” for their hit “Hey Jude,” the bestselling single for the entire decade from 1960 to 1969 (“For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool / By making his world a little colder”). There’s “Cool Jerk,” the infinitely covered classic. And, on the margins, the Stooges with “Real Cool Time,” composed in 1970 and consisting mainly of repetitions of the line “We will have a real cool time tonight.” There’s the Hollies, with their “Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)”; there’s Kool and the Gang; there’s the Little River Band, with “Cool Change,” and Pablo Cruise (in 1981), with “Cool Love.” There’s Squeeze, with “Cool for Cats.” Rickie Lee Jones, “Coolsville.” There’s the Blues Brothers gorging themselves on a “cool water sandwich.” There’s John Cale’s “Indistinct Notion of Cool.” Queen punned on rockabilly cool in the 1980 hit “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”: “She gives me hot and cold fever / Then she leaves me in a cool, cool sweat.” Bruce Springsteen raised the issue in his account of Vietnam vets coming home, “Born in the U.S.A.”: “I’m a long gone daddy in the U.S.A. /… I’m a cool rocking daddy in the U.S.A.” David Bowie used it in “Diamond Dogs”; Sparks used it in “Cool Places”; Devo used it in their awesome satire “Through Being Cool.” There are many other examples.
But though rock and roll, since the fifties, had and has a lot to say about cool, it doesn’t much embody the tricky concept. Not in the way Miles Davis or John Coltrane or Jack Kerouac embodied cool. Here we have to venture forth with a number of finely tuned discernments. Notwithstanding the Sun sessions version of “Mystery Train” or the spontaneous portions of the 1968 “comeback” special in which he jammed with Scotty Moore et al., Elvis, it turns out, was not entirely cool. He was alluring, erotic, intense, but for the purposes of this argument he didn’t have IT. I make this judgment, in part, after having spent an afternoon reading Elvis’s lyrics in their entirety (A to Z) and after having ruminated over the vexing fact of Elvis after the 1968 special, the Elvis who sang “America the Beautiful” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the Las Vegas Elvis, the Elvis who accepted a special citation from President Nixon, the Elvis of the later movies, the Elvis who presided, in his last tours, over the very kind of hack musicianship that rock and roll was designed to slay. Elvis was not cool. Elvis was an entertainer with a grand sentimental streak. An entertainer capable of mesmerizing and delighting. But he wasn’t cool. And you know what? The Beatles, except for few fleeting moments (“Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Dear Prudence,” “Twist and Shout,” side three of The White Album, most of Revolver), even when they got beyond fab, were not really cool either. Anything having to do with Paul McCartney, it should be clear at this late date, is not and cannot be cool, no matter how hummable the melodies. John struggled valiantly to forge a credibility for his fellow Liverpudlians, but even he (“[Just Like] Starting Over”) ultimately succumbed to professionalism. The Rolling Stones are not now cool (although they may have been in one song: “Gimme Shelter”), and the Who are not now cool (Broadway!), and the Clash were not terribly cool, and Talking Heads were not cool, though David Byrne in his 1985 book version of True Stories used the word cool often enough that his editor, Nan Graham, had to suggest alternatives. In fact, rock and roll (and by extension most popular music), by virtue of its relation to the promotion and business of large multinational entertainment providers, has, since the sixties, when the British artists first trammeled our shores, traded in the possibility of cool for a longevity associated with paychecks. Rock and roll has become a job opportunity for younger people not otherwise gifted with business acumen. Thus we arrive at that captioned American postcard from the eighties of the kid with the green mohawk: “Too cool for school, too dumb for the real world… Guess I’ll start a band.”
Myself, I lived by rock and roll; I learned as much from it as I did from Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter, I wept over certain songs and albums, I waited breathlessly for new releases, I quoted song lyrics when asked to quote poetry in English class, I learned about the passions through the passions of forty-fives. But lately the ecstasy of three minutes and fifteen seconds of guitar racket is elusive. Where did the promise go? Where is the deliverance, the goofy, cool intoxication rock and roll once accomplished? Where is a rock and roll about which might be said, as Richard Meltzer opined in his (1970) Aesthetics of Rock, “For an experience to be artistically viable, it must be ‘cool,’ that is, it must be serious enough to attract reflective interest and primary emotional response and yet contain a tinge of the comic or benign just great enough to prevent overindulgence in this seriousness.”
Well, there are a few examples left. There is some vestigial cool in the old battered idiom. These exceptions have to do, mainly, with the conjunction of Beat process with aspects of jazz and American transcendentalism, with the beatified emphasis on the spontaneous and the ephemeral and the excitable and the spiritual, and the way in which these things stew with the counterculture of the late sixties. Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Patti Smith, the Velvet Underground, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, were cool in the rock era. The Bob Dylan of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “Don’t follow leaders / Watch the parkin’ meters.” The Bob Dylan who said, “To live outside the law you must be honest,” who said, “I came out of the wilderness and just naturally fell in with the Beat scene.” The Marvin Gaye of “What’s Going On?” The Patti Smith of Horses. The Velvet Underground of “Sister Ray.” The Jerry Garcia of Live/Dead.
That these rock-and-roll artists became very popular, that cool became with them pandemic among the American young—these facts demonstrate the metastasis that took place in the realm of youth culture during the sixties. In my history of cool, the sixties are when the word cool goes from being meaningful to becoming depleted. As Thomas Frank notes in his fascinating (if uncool by virtue of excessive theorizing) Conquest of Cool, this has everything to do with the attention of straight society, with articles in Time, Life, and Mademoiselle (“Flaming Cool Youth of San Francisco Poetry”), with Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (and its theme entitled “Cool”), with Maynard G. Krebs (the televised Beatnik of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), with the mass attention that signified the creative exhaustion of the Beat revolution, and with this exhaustion the advent of the time in which merchandisers and advertisers began to define cool culture as a demographic and began to sell things to this group, as well as to make of it a commodity in itself, a category of status that America might find a way to purchase:
Before the 1960s, young people had always been an established part of marketing and a staple image in advertising art, largely because of their still unformed tastes and their position as trend leaders. This was especially true in the 1920s. But during the 1960s, this standard approach changed. No longer was youth merely a “natural” demographic to which appeals could be pitched: suddenly youth became a consuming position to which all could aspire.
Frank’s account—for example, of Pepsi’s shift toward an image of “Pepsi hip” in the late sixties—captures an essential aspect of the way youth culture is deployed in business. There is, in Frank’s view, an inextricable link between “straight” culture and the hip margins: “Now the copy [in 1966] is smart-alec in tone rather than inviting, and the overt explanations of ‘Pepsi-ness’ are replaced with hip phrases and anti-establishment wit. An ad depicting surfers describing them as ‘Board members / of the Pepsi Generation.’ ”
But, while effectively accounting for the way merchandising concepts get reproduced in our civilization of signs, Frank fails to deal exhaustively with the meaning of a word like cool (which, beyond the title, doesn’t get much treatment in The Conquest of Cool anyhow, not like hip, which gets charts: “Hip Appliance Advertising, Life Magazine, as a Percentage of All Appliance Advertising, 1958–1972”). Frank’s book avoids describing what was being marketed in the sixties and seventies so that it may instead concentrate on how: “Apart from certain obvious exceptions at either end of the spectrum of commodification (represented, say, by the MC5 at one end and the Monkees at the other), it was and remains difficult to distinguish precisely between authentic counterculture and fake.”
It remains difficult to say what counterculture means. It remains difficult to define cool. It remains difficult to think of a tribe of underemployed hitchhikers, drug dealers, and poets, to take the square view, as meaning much of anything at all. Advertising, according to the scheme Thomas Frank describes, simply puts cool in play, and then, through a large-scale distribution, makes it accessible to a horde of Americans, in this way moving some product. Yet this process shouldn’t imply that the condition of cool doesn’t or couldn’t, in some fertile way, exist. Just because a word is used to market a product shouldn’t disqualify the word, shouldn’t reduce it to mere signifier. If cool gets used, pragmatically speaking, it must get used to connote something. And maybe this is best demonstrated in an example, in the case of the American product most frequently associated with the word cool in the past three decades: the mentholated cigarette brand Kool, manufactured by Brown & Williamson.
Kool is B&W’s flagship brand and has been marketed nationally in this country since the mid-thirties—or not long before the first appearance of the word cool in jazz subculture. At the dawn of its robust life, the Kool advertising campaign made no mention of cool in the contemporary sense (the name Kool probably referred to the taste of menthol). In fact, the original Kool advertising copy merely reflected the fact that Kool carried coupons: “Free coupons bring handsome gifts.” But in 1962, the advertising strategy for Kool cigarettes shifted suddenly toward—as an official B&W brand history terms it—a “problem/solution” approach. The problem addressed in the 1962 advertisements, according to these official communications, was a lack of cool, and the solution, obtainable through lighting up Kool cigarettes (which in 1962 had a 2.9 percent market share of total cigarette consumption), was “extra coolness.” As B&W says, “Kool was the only U.S. domestic cigarette to make so specific and proven a claim.”
If Kool cigarettes, by virtue of their title, somehow affected the word choice, the cool, of jazz cats in the late thirties and early forties (in “Keep Cool, Fool” etc.) through the conjunction of their mentholated brand and the dawn of bebop, and if Kool influenced the renovation of the old Anglo-Saxon word cool and from there seeped into the values and the subconscious of jazz subculture, by the late fifties the brand was nonetheless playing catch-up. Suddenly it was the Beats and the kids who were deploying the slang. In the late fifties and early sixties, Kool was symbiotically pitching itself back to these very wordsmiths it had first influenced. By 1969, for example, the linkage between cool and Kool was entirely explicit in the brand’s courting of women smokers with the “Lady Be Cool” line (rekindled in the 1997 hip-hop-oriented “B Kool” billboard campaign). Kool cigarettes, it was now clear, provided cool. That’s how they were sold. Then, in 1975, in a gesture of unmitigated postmodernism, Kool sponsored its first jazz festival, yoking the music to the cigarette once and for all. The festival has existed ever since.
The proof of all this adroit word choice has been in the bottom line: the Kool “problem/solution” campaign of 1962 resulted in an additional percentage point of the market share, as well as an additional 4.5 billion units sold. At their peak, in the late seventies, after two decades of sales increases, total Kool sales were on the order of 59.4 billion units per annum.
All of which is to say that in the sixties, cool continued to be a major site for linguistic play. As in the postwar years, when a jazzy spontaneity was evident in the way the word was used, by the mid-sixties any number of cool idioms had become abundantly popular in the argot of kids. Keep cool, cool it, cool out, cool in, cool hand, cool cat, cool as a virgin, cool beans, coolcock, in the cooler, cool off, cool one, were all part of the hip dictionary. From a term that mainly described a certain kind of music in 1945, cool had multiplied and subdivided, like the various constituencies using it, geometrically, exponentially. Corporations tried to co-opt the tongue of the kids, as above, by making use of cool, but the kids were acting simultaneously to co-opt the language of business for their own comic revolutionary ends. As is most often the case when there is real enthusiasm and real love of language, meaning proved more powerful than merchandise. Street language, street impulses, the vigorous solecisms of folks, won. You also see this kind of revenger’s energy in the case of Kool-Aid, which, in the sixties, became important to American cool culture in a very novel way.
Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) is a good primary text for tracking the motility of cool in the sixties, not only because Wolfe himself deploys the term—in frank imitation of the lingo he heard at the time—but also because he quotes it frequently among interview subjects: writer Ken Kesey and his band of mid-sixties LSD-dropping Day-Glo Merry Pranksters, who, for a brief couple of years, wrought a very cool havoc on the west side of the American continent and stirred up, in the process, a bona fide alternative lifestyle. Wolfe, for all his bravado, is attuned to the movement of ideas and to their tectonic shiftings. And perhaps for this reason, he opens Electric Kool-Aid with a witty pun: “That’s good thinking there, Cool Breeze. Cool Breeze is a kid with three or four days’ beard sitting next to me on the stamped metal bottom of the open back part of a pickup truck.” Cool Breeze, who turns up but once more in Electric Kool-Aid, is here not only a signifier for the slightly awkward but ambitious cool of the Pranksters, but, as a hippie primitive, he is also faintly comic amid the run-down technology of a good old American pickup truck.
And that’s just at the outset. Wolfe uses the word cool a lot: “The Chief; out on bail. I expect the whole random carnival to well up into a fluorescent yahoo of incalculably insane proportions. In fact, everybody is quiet. It is all cool.” Or: “Some of the old Perry Lane luminaries’ cool was tested and they were found wanting”; “Chuck is one of the nicest people in the world and Sandy can trust him. If only he can remain cool.” Etc.
In addition to using the word, Wolfe does a fine job of getting at the cool of Kesey’s ideas, at their Beat origins. Here he is certainly amplifying Kerouac’s notion of the unstated IT of cool as it was expressed in the California of the mid-sixties:
The Life—that feeling—The Life—the late 1940s early 1950s American Teenage Drive-In Life was precisely what it was all about—but how could you tell anyone about it?
But of course!—the feeling—out here at night, free, with the motor running and the adrenaline flowing, cruising in the neon glories of the new American night—it was very Heaven to be the first wave of the most extraordinary kids in the history of the world—only 15, 16, 17 years old, dressed in the haute couture of pink Oxford shirts, sharp pants, snaky half-inch belts, fast shoes—with all this Straight-6 and V-8 power underneath and all this neon glamour overhead, which somehow tied in with the technological superheroics of the jet, TV, atomic subs, ultrasonics—Postwar American suburbs—glorious world!
Wolfe is rendering a late-night drug-induced rant of Kesey’s. It’s a spirited and funny monologue (which goes on for about three pages), and it’s clearly indebted to Kerouac’s high style, with a Kerouacian emphasis on the evanescent, uncanny aspect of life (“It couldn’t be put into words anyway”). But there are a few telling alterations to the Beat construct of cool as it is recycled in Kesey’s posse. Though Neal Cassady, the Dean Moriarty of On the Road, was present in this band of Merry Pranksters—he was the driver of the famous Prankster bus (and otherwise seemed to stand mainly on the fringes of the action)—and though Ginsberg turned up periodically at Kesey’s house, though even Kerouac made an appearance in the Pranksters’“movie” (when the Pranksters were in NYC)—“Here was Kerouac and here was Kesey and here was Cassady in between them, once the mercury for Kerouac and the whole Beat Generation and now the mercury for Kesey and the whole—what?—something wilder and weirder out on the road”—in spite of a perfect Beat pedigree, there was wide-eyed optimism somehow missing from the Pranksters’ activity, especially later on. The Beat process was somewhat intact (“Kesey’s explicit teachings were cryptic, metaphorical; parables, aphorisms”), but not the meaning. Wolfe says of the hippie kids of the period, “They had no particular philosophy, just a little leftover Buddhism and Hinduism from the beat period.” The message got a little incoherent, a little malevolent, a little white. But that’s the least of it.
With a movement among the Pranksters toward vagueness and inactivity and, on occasion, even pathology (Sandy Lehmann-Haupt’s psychotic break on the bus that no one quite bothered about), the notion of cool also slid sideways, so that some activities that would not have been cool earlier, in the fifties, were now routinized, made tolerable. The meaning of cool shifted slightly, away from the spiritus mundi. There are two passages in Electric Kool-Aid that depict this transition. The first has to do with the meeting between Kesey’s Pranksters and the motorcycle gang called the Hells Angels.
Kesey met the Angels through Hunter S. Thompson, Wolfe tells us, and took to them right away. Kesey’s lumberjack charm apparently didn’t put off the Angels either—“Kesey was a stud who was just as tough as they were”—and they accepted an invitation to party with Kesey’s group immediately. The Angels, as they arrived at Kesey’s domain, were a little reticent at first, but soon they fused with the loose, unpredictable flow of things, so much so that even Wolfe seems nearly tolerant at the ensuing carnival, at least initially: “The Hell’s Angels party went on for two days and the cops never moved in. Everybody, Angels and Pranksters, had a righteous time and no heads were broken.” While the democratic principles of this meeting seem honorable according to a Beat sort of cool—even an Angel was an angel if he was on the bus—the passive acceptance of, for example, a gang rape scene that took place at the powwow chilled my readerly affections for Prankster activity considerably:
The girl had her red and white dress pushed up around her chest, and two or three would be on her at once, between her legs, sitting on her face in the sick ochre light of the shack with much lapping and leering and bubbling and gulping through the furzes of pubic hair while sweat and semen glistened on the highlights of her belly and thighs and she twitched and moaned, not in protest, however, in a kind of drunken bout of God knew what and men with no pants on were standing around, cheering, chiding, waiting for their turn, or their second turn, or the third until she had been fenestrated in various places at least fifty times.
Given that the woman in question was drunk or drugged or both, not at the peak of her decision-making capabilities, young and vulnerable, one wonders if she still, to this day, views this particular afternoon delight as consensual, or if gang bang (as Wolfe terms it) is really the correct terminology. Whatever the scene was, it sure wasn’t cool. Nonetheless, in concluding the passage, Wolfe uses the word again, as if out of an anxiety about the whole violent Angels scene: “The Angels respected [Kesey] and they weren’t about to screw around with him. He was one of the coolest guys they had ever come across.”
As a footnote, it’s worth noting that Ginsberg, too, whom the Angels tolerated (according to Wolfe) as a sort of wise freak, an imponderable, wrote about this cultural event in “First Party at Ken Kesey’s with Hell’s Angels”:
Cool black night thru the redwoods
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
at 3 A.M. the blast of loudspeakers
hi-fi Rolling Stones Ray Charles Beatles
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
a little weed in the bathroom, girls in scarlet
tights, one muscular smooth skinned man
sweating dancing for hours, beer cans
bent littering the yard…
I’d suggest that the tights here, with their inflamed hue, are a tacit admission of the sexual coercion taking place on the premises, while the revolving squad car lights at the poem’s close anticipate the encircling force arrayed against a cool that had begun to veer a little too close to felony, a felonious cool, a cool that was no longer so inviting.
Not long after the Angels party, Kesey went on the lam, fleeing drug-related charges, and the Pranksters began to fray, though they remained coherent enough to begin a string of large-scale, organized LSD raves, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, in a subterranean effort to disseminate further their mad charm. It’s here that the word cool, the cool of the Pranksters, collided with a squeaky-clean American food product, a soft drink and its history, with truly strange results.
Like many great American beverages, Kool-Aid began its life making somewhat spurious medicinal claims. According to Kraft Foods, owners of Kool-Aid’s Perkins Product Company since 1953, the initial inventor of Kool-Aid was one “E. E. (Edwin) Perkins of Hendley, Nebraska,” who, in 1914, “established a printing office and mail-order business, offering household remedies.” Perkins’s company later moved to Hastings, Nebraska (the Hastings Museum, “home of Kool-Aid,” is now located there), and “expanded to include the manufacture and distribution of about 125 flavorings, spices and household products.” In 1927, Kool-Aid became a powder, instead of a syrup, and assumed its present name. The name, I should point out, is roughly coeval with Kool cigarettes and, again, not too far ahead of the great blossoming of cool lingo in the late thirties and forties. In 1931, Kool-Aid became the sole product of the Perkins Product Company, after which Perkins sold out, in the fifties. Since then, Kraft has “innovated the Kool-Aid business with presweetened Kool-Aid Bursts (1991), Kool-Aid Island Twists (1995), and Mega Mountain Twists (1997).”
(I love the excessive names of American products! I love all derangement of language in merchandising! I love all hype and bluster and exaggerated language! And I’m especially taken with the very Beat names of some of the recent Kool-Aid varieties, with their “wild, twisted-up flavors”: Oh Yeah Orange-Pineapple, Man-O Mango Berry, Soarin’ Strawberry Lemonade, Kickin’ Kiwi Lime, etc.).
The very, incredibly cool Kool-Aid Frequently Asked Questions site on the World Wide Web catalogues some factoids about the beverage that are important to compile at this juncture: (1) Kool-Aid has been used effectively as a hair dye for children. (2) Unofficial taste tests by soft-drink-obsessed Internet consumers indicate that Kool-Aid’s “super-fruity” designation of recent vintage is identical to the so-called regular Kool-Aid of old. (3) However, it is not true, as previously supposed, that James Jones and the People’s Temple members committed mass suicide (in Jonestown) by dissolving cyanide in grape Kool-Aid. “The followers of Jones,” according to the Kool-Aid FAQ, “drank cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid, a cheap imitation of Kool-Aid.” (4) Kool-Aid in Great Britain is sometimes sold on the black market, at seventy-five cents a packet—a significant markup. (5) And, irrefutably true, though subject to total suppression by all Kraft Foods materials that I was able to gather, is that in 1966 the Merry Pranksters, under the de facto leadership of Kenneth Babbs (while Kesey was a fugitive), held their famous “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” in Compton, Los Angeles (not far from where, less than six months earlier, the Watts riots had raged)—at which the catalytic drug of the evening was tendered in a solution made with the famous medicinal beverage of E. E. (Edwin) Perkins, Kool-Aid.
A product made cool by virtue of its name.
Tom Wolfe thus describes the love potion, quoting an acid-test participant called Claire Brush:
The [Pranksters’ home movie] continued, some slides were shown of flowers and patterns, this and that… then a large trash can, plastic, was carried to the middle of the room, and all were invited to help themselves to the Kool-Aid it contained…. Since Kool-Aid is a staple in the homes of Del Close and Hugh Romney and other friends of mine, I thought it was a natural thing to serve.
The Compton acid test continued in the usual fashion, with a fair amount of mayhem and mystery and boredom and carnage, with police ceaselessly monitoring the activity (LSD wasn’t yet illegal, and thus the Pranksters couldn’t be busted on a lysergic rap). But soon Wolfe’s description takes a sinister turn. A particularly bad trip by one female attendee was captured by a microphone and broadcast over a loudspeaker by Babbs and other Pranksters in a seminal moment at the LA test:
Babbs is getting it all over the microphone to make it part of the test—not an isolated event—but All-one, anachoretic freakout—Who cares! Romney looks at Babbs and Who cares!—well, Babbs cares, with one part of him, but with another his devotion is to the Test, to the Archives… Who Cares in the Prankster Archives, and the cry wails over the hall, into every brain…. Romney can’t get this insane cry out of his head, Who cares… and he is back at the microphone, with his mission now, his voice furrowing into the microphone: “Listen, this girl’s brains are coming out! And who cares?”
Few attended to the woman’s cries, or perhaps her panic subsided (as bad trips often do), but the ennui of the acid tests had begun, at which point one kid asked the police for a cigarette and, amazingly, the cop slipped out for smokes and came back with a pack of Kools, but the fun had gone out of the expedition, the passion of Kesey had gone out of it, a passion itself deracinated when compared to the joy advocated by Kerouac, no one particularly cared any longer, though caring, and the passions in general, had once (in an elegant way) been integral to the mission of cool. There was division among the Pranksters about the leadership of Kenneth Babbs; there was division about the nature and purpose of the Pranksters. By the end of the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the Pranksters as a community were threatened, perhaps terminally so. They may have lingered, persisted, but the mantle of cool had passed beyond them. When Kesey returned from Mexico he began talking about going “beyond acid,” and his new caution and his retrospection about the bus and its inhabitants was palpable (in Wolfe’s account). Cool, as a social experiment, was wearing out its time.
Thus, with the end of the Pranksters, cool became a term primarily and mostly related to drug chatter—is he cool (does he smoke)? Was it cool (was the location free of cops)?—in the precise sense that Del Close and John Brent discussed the word cool in How to Speak Hip (1959): “[To be cool is to] protect yourself from police intervention.” The energy around cool had shifted away from jazz, away from black Americans (as Wolfe says: “The big thing with spades on the hip scene has always been the quality known as cool. And LSD freaking well blows that whole lead shield known as cool, like it brings you right out front, hang-ups and all”), away from writers, away even from Kerouac and Kesey. Cool, instead, had become something that was possessed by drug users and free-love espousers and rock-and-roll musicians. In fact, among the standard-bearers for several years would be the house band from the Prankster acid tests at Kesey’s house, viz., the Grateful Dead. For example, Jerry Garcia, of the Dead, in a posthumous collection of interviews (Garcia, by the editors of Rolling Stone), uses the word cool a couple of times, first in connection with his album Workingman’s Dead: “After we got busted [in New Orleans in 1971], we went home to make our record. And while we were making our record, we had a big, bad scene with our manager. Actually, making the record was the only cool thing happening—everything else was just sheer weirdness” (italics mine). And, later, in discussing the legacy of the Beatniks in San Francisco, as perceived by Garcia’s generation: “They liked… jazz. You know: ‘Jazz, man. Dig it.’ Rock & roll wasn’t cool, but I loved rock & roll. I used to have these fantasies about ‘I want rock & roll to be, like, respectable music.’ I wanted it to be like art.”
These instances for the word presage entirely the meaning that we associate with cool now. Cool, once it had passed into the early seventies, meant not much more than modern and good. And potentially much less. This was the cool of the Dead, and it had a vestigial spontaneity, a jazz and Beat spontaneity, it had space, it had throw weight, at least until the mid-seventies, when the Dead went “disco,” when they fossilized, and as went the Dead, so went the word, at least for a time.
And this is when I come into the story as an observer. This is the beginning of the cool of my growing-up years. A cool America in which we were taught that LSD would enable you to change the traffic light from red to green at will, that you should not take LSD, therefore, because it would cause traffic accidents, an America that learned to accept as routine that a man holding the highest office might use skulduggery or tape recordings to discredit his enemies, an America in which the coolest thing, the free concert, carried the possibility of murder (Altamont, 1969), in which military incursion into neutral countries was considered explicable, in which the free expression of youth culture was circumscribed, in which youth culture had conspicuous traces of hard luck upon it, a cool America in which Billy Jack was cool, or Walking Tall was cool. My America. I personally thought that Elton John was the man, or Al Pacino in Serpico, or Gene Hackman in The French Connection, or just about anybody in The Poseidon Adventure. (I thought that the end of The Poseidon Adventure—in which the Gene Hackman character asks God to take him so that others might live as he lets go of the steam valve in the belly of the cruise liner and drops to his death—was really cool.)
Yet, by the mid-seventies, when the singer-songwriter school was wearing thin and with it the whole flaccid enterprise of California rock and roll, people were nonetheless realizing that literature had once again become cool, suddenly, with the words “a screaming comes across the sky,” in the mad, cabalistic invention of Gravity’s Rainbow, in the fury of Donald Barthelme’s unequaled experiments in short prose, in John Ashbery’s poems, or in the tremendous innovative assault of the Living Theatre (a pride of New York artists walks into a theatrical space, takes off its clothes, and just starts talking—without script or theme or character), or in the violent electric period of Miles Davis (who probably comes closer, in his life’s work, to embodying cool than any other single American artist). About the time I came into the story, cool was poised to make one last effort at a comeback.
I didn’t know about any of this. I was trying to get comfortable among my contemporaries. My time was spent, hours of it, attempting to make myself presentable, shucking layers of clothing, donning new ones, trying to mat my absurd hair, committing acts of home surgical intervention upon skin blemishes. I amounted to a desperate series of premeditated strategies for fitting in, none of them successful. However, when I went away to school, in New Hampshire, I suddenly began to learn, intuitively, that there was such a thing as cool, and that it was a quality I might ape, or aspire to. It was around me in the upperclassmen and -women, and, oddly enough, it was completely synthesized and represented in the person of one of my coevals there, a guy from the Philadelphia area named Jamie Neilson.
From ninth through twelfth grade, Neilson was a one-man sideshow of creativity, comedy, malice, and charm. He was blond and attractive (later it seemed that every woman I knew had been involved with him); he wrote great poetry—according to my standards at the time; he was no slouch as an athlete. According to rumor, he consumed legendary amounts of drugs and alcohol; he flouted all “major school rules”; he swam naked at the dam; he broke curfew; he swiped my copy of Freak Out! by the Mothers of Invention; he did ribald skits at chapel; he acted; he sang; he was everywhere at once, tormenting people, praising them, visiting them in their dreams; he was, by the standards of my school, a cool work of art.
There’s one of these guys at every high school.
So I decided, in completing this investigation of cool, to see what Benjamin R. Neilson Jr., himself now an instructor in English at a boarding school as well as a dean of the senior class, a husband and father, a regular citizen, thought of cool now. I asked Jamie first about Kerouac and that ancient Beat model of cool, and then about whether he thought about the term now. So here’s the onetime urchin of cool as he would describe himself now:
Whatever we thought was cool was miles from anything Kerouac had in mind. What he thought of as cool was a lot more difficult than what we did. By the time we got to cool it had lost all of its earnestness and it had an almost complete lack of self-awareness.
And the unfortunate thing about cool in our era was that it wasn’t very nice. Being cool was about distance. Sparring, in that verbal kind of way, conferred cool. If possible, frighten all fuckers away from ever thinking about judging you.
I didn’t perceive until I had been away from school for years that trying to be cool was about selling out in the worst way. We were trying desperately to be distant, to have a critical detachment that would allow us to sit in judgment. And as anti-establishment as we styled ourselves, that wish to be the one doing the judging was strictly generic arrogance.
As you may have inferred from the foregoing, my career as a Cool Guy is somewhat painful for me to contemplate.
Neilson’s cultural analysis mirrors the difficult realities of the last gasp of cool in America, as he and I both experienced it, which is to say the punk rock upheavals of the late seventies. Out of a few stray particles of Beat and jazz and hippie energy—Richard Hell and the Voidoids swiping a line from a 1959 song called “The Beat Generation” and coming up with their version, “Blank Generation”; Patti Smith updating the Burroughs style for her monumental album Horses; Ginsberg recording with the Clash—a rock-and-roll style was formulated in London and New York that seemed, for a moment, to change everything. What was degraded and unattractive, perverse and inept, was celebrated and accorded the highest respect of all. Guys and women (finally) who could scarcely play their instruments called attention to all the scabs and sores of contemporary society, in a style that featured wit, energy, and inventiveness. Punk included anyone. There was no in-crowd or out-crowd. The more marginal you were, the better. (At a Devo concert I went to, on New Year’s Eve of 1978, the area where the disabled people were clustered in their wheelchairs seemed to be the most important section of the theater. The disabled were more Devo, more plugged into the sinister contradictions of the straight life, the tyranny of beauty.) Almost overnight, many at my boarding school went from the groovy tie-dyed threads of the Grateful Dead to the giddy vindictiveness of the Sex Pistols (“We’re pretty vacant! /… And we don’t care!”).
Never was a cultural movement so quick to extinguish itself. As a dramatic evocation of the transition, I think most often of Exene Cervenka’s commentary about the punk scene in Los Angeles, as depicted in part six of the Time Life History of Rock ’n’ Roll. Cervenka describes the initial community spirit of punk and the way that community quickly became permeated by a sinister edge: “Everything went along just great until at some point the audiences went from being relatively intelligent and understanding people to being kinda young scary kids who liked to spit at the band a lot…. We kept begging them to stop spitting at us.” There were earlier signs of trouble, too, for example in one of the Stooges’ last shows, in the mid-seventies, in Detroit (as described by Iggy Pop in Please Kill Me):
This guy kept whipping eggs at me. I had on this little ballerina costume and a G-string and everything and I just got sick of it. It was a biker hangout, you know? So I finally just stopped everything and I said, “Okay, I’m calling the fucker down!” Everybody clears out and here’s this guy, about six foot three…. You know, I had little ballet shoes on, and it was just like seeing a train coming…. He just got me. But he didn’t deck me, he couldn’t knock me down, it was weird. Finally, the blood got to be too much for him so he just stopped and said, “Okay, you’re cool.”
Some of this—performers assaulting the audience, audience assaulting performers—was play, was innovation, but some of it was no cooler than the gang rape at Kesey’s house or the “who cares” desolation of the late acid tests. Some of this was contempt for fellow men. By the end of the seventies, there was already developing an us and them of cool, divisions within divisions, bickering, lack of ambition, careerism, heroin addiction, death. By the time punk burned itself out, cool was a way to constitute community, but mostly this was a community that kept others out—as in the opening sequence in Woody Allen’s 1980 film, Stardust Memories, in which the filmmaker, whom Allen portrays, imagines himself on a train (one of those brokenhearted locals that run to the end of the line) full of sad, destitute, homely Americans, the elderly, the obese, the disabled, a train running exactly parallel to another train, this other full of happy, beautiful, charming, cool people. Allen looks from his car, the train of the bereaved, into the cool car, desperate for a way to effect passage from here to there.
If the seventies were bad, the eighties were worse, and I refuse on principle to admit that the eighties contributed anything at all to the history of cool. Or to much else, excepting the national debt. The connotation of the word cool in this dark period didn’t change (one friend of mine, a writer well known in the eighties, protested, when I asked about it, “I used ‘cool’ to describe the weather!”)—good and modern, in the Partridge sense; satisfactory and acceptable, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (which cites, for example, a 1980 University of Tennessee freshman theme: “There are a couple of cool guys on my floor. The rest are a bunch of shitheads”). Otherwise, in the eighties, there is little viable youth culture that is not being wholly and entirely controlled by multinational entertainment providers. The most conservative president of the postwar era occupies the Oval Office. Crack cocaine contributes a compelling new example of alliteration to the national vocabulary. Cool is isolated in pockets like indie rock (Hüsker Dü, the Replacements), advanced semiotics and cultural criticism (Slavoj Zizek, Jane Gallop, Greil Marcus), independent cinema (Jim Jarmusch, Steven Soderbergh). Meanwhile, the culturally accepted notion of cool, ever more powerful over the margins, adheres in Slaves of New York, Less Than Zero, and Bright Lights, Big City. Jill Eisenstadt uses cool in one of the period’s finer coming-of-age novels, From Rockaway: “You can say anything to Seaver; he’s cool,” or “ ‘I’s cool, ma’am,’ says Sloane. ‘You ain’t gotta worry, we’re his friends.’ ” But elsewhere there is an unbelievable paucity of self-knowledge masquerading as cool. The second-person narrator of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, for example, says of himself, in a moment of high introspection,
[In college] you succeeded in faking everyone out, and never lost the fear that you would eventually be discovered a fraud, an imposter on the social circle. Which is just about how you feel these days. Even now, as you puff yourself up with tales of high adventure in magazine publishing, you can see Elaine’s eyes wandering out over the room, leaving you behind.
When the Ironman Nightlife Decathlons lurch to a close, the architects of eighties cool begin to wonder what lies beneath. It is clear, in these moments of candor, how far we have fallen from the cool of the forties and fifties. This cool, in the most dramatic shift in the whole history of the word, has again become literally cool. Devoid of feeling, or noteworthy only for its nostalgia about the time—way back—when human emotions mattered. You see it preeminently in the work of Bret Easton Ellis, in the deliberately flattened affect of his chef d’oeuvre:
I don’t like driving down Wilshire during lunch hour. There always seem to be too many cars and old people and maids waiting for the buses and I end up looking away and smoking too much and turning the radio up to full volume. Right now, nothing is moving even though the lights are green. As I wait in the car, I look at the people in the cars next to mine.
Literally cool. From a cool that was meant to be evocative and emotionally dexterous (Miles Davis’s cool jazz), to a cool that was cerebral and goofy (Burroughs and Ginsberg), to a cool that was at first rigorously opposed to state power and straight culture (Kesey, the Pranksters, the hippies), to the all-inclusive insurrection of the seventies (Sex Pistols, X, Patti Smith), we have, in the eighties, a cool that means dead inside. Chilled-out cool, to use nineties locution. Flat, lifeless, dim, empty, dead cool.
And that’s about where things remain. Here’s cool as described in some recent tongue-in-cheek catalogue copy for a lava lamp: “The key to being cool: Wear clothes as black as the base of this pop icon. Watch the primordial goo rise up through the illuminated blue liquid…. Note how this is just like life. Order another espresso and decide you are deep and should go back to writing beat poetry. Cool, Daddy-O!” Here’s cool from a New York Times article about smokeless cigarettes: “But smokers must lift the device to their lips for each puff, as if smoking a kazoo. This is not exactly the cool image of Humphrey Bogart.” A recent General Foods International Coffees coupon extols “Cool Ways to Unplug: Lusciously flavorful delightfully easy recipe ideas.” At the close of the Tommy Lee Jones vehicle Volcano (“The Coast Is Toast!”), Jones asks his screen daughter how she liked watching LA’s Beverly Center being detonated by a bomb squad. Her reply: “It was cool, Dad.”
Are any of these examples legitimately cool? Even one?
A last-chance cottage industry of cool has sprung up in the world of hip-hop, in the jive of inner-city and faux-inner-city entertainers, the cool of Kool Herc, Kool Moe Dee, Cool Nutz, Kool Keith, Kool G Rap, LL Cool J, and Coolio. Since this represents the dialectical weight of cool swinging back toward black Americans, I find it temporarily exciting and interesting. When a slang term gets neglected by one mob of citizens, it is often elsewhere the site of rehabilitation. As an example of this, I find Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise album, like the really terrific hip-hop albums of old (Fear of a Black Planet, Straight Outta Compton), a genuinely moving evocation of the difficulties of urban life, featuring “gangsters and thugs,” like “Young n fighting the case with public defenders,” as well as “His little girl just now taking training wheels off her bike / While her daddy gets twenty-five to life,” in addition to a grand cast of innocent bystanders, of which Coolio observes, “Be your own good ride / Right right / These are the geto highlites [sic].” His line of cool is also the cool of the detached observer, the distant relation of the low-affect Bret Easton Ellis cool, and perhaps not unlike the cool of blues musicians of the thirties who played with elegiac restraint amid burdens of racism and poverty, where cool is all survival, where cool is beating the rap, living to tell.
Cool is a “grunt of assent,” as my former classmate Jamie Neilson put it. It’s meaningless. It’s no better than neat or keen or sweet or any of the other shifters in the pantheon of Anglo-Saxon single-syllable grunts of assent whose only reason to be is phatic, to ensure the continuity of communication, the insistence on noise, the bluster of a Young America that is no longer certain what it means or what it wants to mean or if it is capable of meaning at all. “Like… cool,” Beavis says to his cartoon sidekick, Butt-Head, as they gaze at some meager television fare, at some forgettable output from the medium cool (“Some like it cold,” as Marshall McLuhan says), and his rap is funny and devastating and sad, all at the same time. What does he think it means?
Sisters and brethren, kids all grown up now, adults of America (kids with kids of your own), remember those chambers where we once kicked back, avoiding homework or the first years of our nine-to-fives—in sudden, comical embraces, hoisting early-morning beers, drinks stolen from our parents, or later, the convenience apartments in which we worried about income and outflow, worried about our futures, what were we going to do, about the ineffable thing that we all wanted to have, that quality that seemed to slip away from us, out of reach, like a mooring line fraying and slipping, briefer than the neutrinos, briefer than the subatomics, this thing that others seemed to have, this unknown tongue (as Richard Meltzer calls it), the unknown tongue of a cool that made the opening of Lolita perfect, or the moment when James Dean says, “You’re tearing me apart!” in Rebel Without a Cause, or the gum-snapping cool of Grace Paley’s voice in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, or the cool of Aretha Franklin shouting, “Respect,” the cool of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” the cool of the Ramones? Where is the cool hidden in all these moments of bliss that are past now, moments when we felt suddenly vitally here and good and modern and happy and ready to go, to drive, like roadrunners, like continental explorers, across the impediments of a continent? Where is the cool we once thought we had or thought we wanted? Shimmering interstate mirage, never to materialize? Cultural spook of a credulous age?
Excerpted from On Celestial Music by Moody, Rick Copyright © 2012 by Moody, Rick. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted July 8, 2012
It is not easy to write about music. I think everyone has experienced that moment when a song sets off some kind of emotion that you just can't find the words to describe. As a composer, I have always struggled with finding the words to describe my pieces. In my mind, I know what the piece is doing, but I am of the belief that it is much easier to music about music than write about it.
Author and musician Rick Moody has tackled the unenviable task of writing about music for many years. In this book, he compiles a varied collection of essays and thoughts that shed some light on his views of our world of music. Of particular note is his opening essay "Against Cool" in which he chronicles the word's journey from truly meaning cool to becoming another way to say "neat". He begins with the origin of the "cool" bluesy jazz of Miles Davis. He argues that the commercialization and over exposure of the cool (think Kool-Aid or Kool Cigarettes) diminished the value of the word.
In another well written section, Moody attempts to grasp what the music of heaven will sound like. To me, this was the most effective section. Moody somehow manages to relay his emotional connection/response to certain pieces and artists (Simon and Garfunkel, Arvo Part, etc.). Through these descriptions and personal recollections, Moody makes an interesting point about the sounds of the afterlife, and admits his fears of nonbeing.
Other sections of this book fail live up to the level of the better written ones. Like an album of music, certain essays really worked while others just fell flat. Despite Moody's fantastic writing, some of his pieces simply failed to come to any important point. With that in mind, this book is well worth reading for the many gems it contains. Anyone who has had a connection to music will find meaning in Moody's writing and gain a larger knowledge of the music that inhabits our world.