The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays

The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays

by James Wood

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Following The Broken Estate, The Irresponsible Self, and How Fiction Works—books that established James Wood as the leading critic of his generation—The Fun Stuff confirms Wood’s preeminence, not only as a discerning judge but also as an appreciator of the contemporary novel. In twenty-three passionate, sparkling

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Following The Broken Estate, The Irresponsible Self, and How Fiction Works—books that established James Wood as the leading critic of his generation—The Fun Stuff confirms Wood’s preeminence, not only as a discerning judge but also as an appreciator of the contemporary novel. In twenty-three passionate, sparkling dispatches—that range over such crucial writers as Thomas Hardy, Leon Tolstoy, Edmund Wilson, and Mikhail Lermontov—Wood offers a panoramic look at the modern novel. He effortlessly connects his encyclopedic, passionate understanding of the literary canon with an equally in-depth analysis of the most important authors writing today, including Cormac McCarthy, Lydia Davis, Aleksandar Hemon, and Michel Houellebecq. Included in The Fun Stuff are the title essay on Keith Moon and the lost joys of drumming—which was a finalist for last year’s National Magazine Awards—as well as Wood’s essay on George Orwell, which Christopher Hitchens selected for the Best American Essays 2010. The Fun Stuff is indispensable reading for anyone who cares about contemporary literature.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
…possesses many of the pleasures of [Wood's] previous collections…the same tight weave, the laconic humor, the genius for metaphor…No one is better at alerting us to influences with such gossipy familiarity…And no critic gets closer to the text. Wood writes that Edmund Wilson "seems to rear panoptically above his subjects, like a statue overseeing a city square." Wilson looms over the work; Wood seems to speak from within it.
—Parul Sehgal
Publishers Weekly
This collection of 23 essays gathered from the New Republic, the London Review of Books, and the New Yorker offers the latest proof that Wood (How Fiction Works) is one of the best readers writing today. Devouring these pieces back to back feels like having a long conversation about books with your most erudite, articulate, and excitable friend. To read his essays on the works of Norman Rush, Aleksandar Hemon, Leo Tolstoy, or Lydia Davis is to relive the specific brand of joy created by a particular work of genius. Wood’s reviews are never just evaluations; more often they are passionate, sensitive discourses on the variations of authorial voice, the nature of memory, or the burden of biography. Wood’s critical writing on Cormac McCarthy, Joseph O’Neill, and Thomas Hardy is bookended by two moving personal essays. In the National Magazine Award–nominated riff “The Fun Stuff,” Wood exalts the skills of Keith Moon, writing that the drummer’s “playing is like an ideal sentence of prose... a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but disheveled, careful and lawless, right and wrong.” Wood’s veneration of virtuosity reminds why we’re reading at all—because we still believe that it’s possible to find transcendence in great art. Isn’t it fun to think so? (Nov.)
From the Publisher

“No critic gets closer to the text....Exhilarating.” —The New York Times Book Review

“James Wood has been called our best young critic. This is not true. He is our best critic; he thinks with a sublime ferocity.” —Cynthia Ozick

“A captivating collection...Wood enlightens and excites, informs and ignites disagreement. He sends readers back to novels with a heightened awareness of what makes fiction live and breathe.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Stirringly intimate...The fun of Wood's caliber of criticism is his shared enthusiasm. The thrill of these essays is the joy of vivid, intellectual collaboration.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Wood passes a crucial test of criticism: He is unfailingly interesting to read....He opens up new dimensions of the novel he's reading in a way that strands other critics in Flatland.” —Chicago Tribune

“Nabokov famously recommended that ‘as a reader, one should notice and fondle details,' and Wood is something like the critical embodiment of this ideal....An excellent and necessary critic.” —Slate

Library Journal
Literary criticism sometimes takes itself too seriously, so it's a pleasure to see that preeminent critic Wood's very title reminds us what literature is really about: fun. Here he offers his heartfelt views on writers ranging from Thomas Hardy to Michel Houellebecq.

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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I had a traditional musical education, in a provincial English cathedral town. I was sent off to an ancient piano teacher with the requisite halitosis, who lashed with a ruler at my knuckles as if they were wasps; I added the trumpet a few years later and had lessons with a younger, cheerier man, who told me that the best way to make the instrument “sound” was to imagine spitting paper pellets down the mouthpiece at the school bully. I sang daily in the cathedral choir, an excellent grounding in sight-reading and performance. I still play the piano and the trumpet.

But what I really wanted to do, as a little boy, was play the drums, and of those different ways of making music, only playing the drums still makes me feel like a little boy. A friend’s older brother had a drum kit, and as a twelve-year-old I gawped at the spangled shells of wood and skin, and plotted how I might get to hit them, and make a lot of noise. It wouldn’t be easy. My parents had no time for “all that thumping about,” and the prim world of ecclesiastical and classical music, which meant so much to me, detested rock. But I waited until the drums’ owner was off at school and sneaked into the attic, where they gleamed, fabulously inert, and over the next few years I taught myself how to play them. Sitting behind the drums was also like a fantasy of driving (the other great prepubescent ambition), with my feet established on two pedals, bass drum and hi-hat, and the willing dials staring back at me like a blank dashboard …

Noise, speed, rebellion: everyone secretly wants to play the drums, because hitting things, like yelling, returns us to the innocent violence of childhood. Music makes us want to dance, to register rhythm on and with our bodies. So the drummer and the conductor are the luckiest of all musicians, because they are closest to dancing. And in drumming, how childishly close the connection is between the dancer and the dance! When you blow down an oboe, say, or pull a bow across a string, an infinitesimal, barely perceptible hesitation—the hesitation of vibration—separates the act and the sound; for trumpeters, the simple voicing of a quiet middle C is more fraught than very complex passages, because that brass tube can be sluggish in its obedience. But when a drummer needs to make a drum sound, he just … hits it. The stick or hand comes down, and the skin bellows. The narrator of Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser, a pianist crazed with dreams of genius and obsessed with Glenn Gould, expresses the impossible longing to become the piano, to be at one with it. When you play the drums, you are the drums. “Le tom-tom, c’est moi,” as Wallace Stevens put it.

The drummer who was the drums, when I was a boy, was the Who’s Keith Moon, though he was already dead by the time I first heard him. He was the drums not because he was the most technically accomplished of drummers, but because his many-armed, joyous, semaphoring lunacy suggested a man possessed by the antic spirit of drumming. He was pure, irresponsible, restless childishness. At the end of early Who concerts, as Pete Townshend smashed his guitar, Moon would kick his drums and stand on them and hurl them around the stage, and this seems a logical extension not only of the basic premise of drumming, which is to hit things, but an inevitable extension of Moon’s drumming, which was to hit things exuberantly. In the band’s very early days, the managers of clubs would complain to Townshend about his drummer. We like you guys, they would say, but get rid of that madman on the drums, he’s too loud. To which Moon succinctly replied: “I can’t play quiet, I’m a rock drummer.”

The Who had extraordinary rhythmic vitality, and it died when Keith Moon died, on September 7, 1978. I had hardly ever heard any rock music when I first listened to albums like Quadrophenia and Who’s Next. My notion of musical volume and power was inevitably circumscribed by my fairly sheltered, austerely Christian upbringing—I got off on classical or churchy things like the brassy last bars of William Walton’s First Symphony, or the chromatic last movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata, or the way the choir bursts in at the start of Handel’s anthem Zadok the Priest, or the thundering thirty-two-foot bass pipes of Durham Cathedral’s organ, and the way the echo, at the end of a piece, took seven seconds to dissolve in that huge building. Those are not to be despised, but nothing had prepared me for the ferocious energy of the Who. The music enacted the Mod rebellion of its lyrics: “Hope I die before I get old”; “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”; “Dressed right, for a beach fight”; “There’s a millionaire above you, / And you’re under his suspicion.” Pete Townshend’s hard, tense suspended chords seem to scour the air around them; Roger Daltrey’s singing was a young man’s fighting swagger, an incitement to some kind of crime; John Entwistle’s incessantly mobile bass playing was like someone running away from the scene of the crime; and Keith Moon’s drumming, in its inspired vandalism, was the crime itself.

Most rock drummers, even very good and inventive ones, are timekeepers. There is a space for a fill or a roll at the end of a musical phrase, but the beat has primacy over the curlicues. In a regular 4/4 bar, the bass drum sounds the first beat, the snare the second, the bass drum again hits the third (often with two eighth notes at this point), and then the snare hits the bar’s final beat. This results in the familiar “boom-DA, boom-boom-DA” sound of most rock drumming. A standard-issue drummer, playing along, say, to the Beatles’ “Carry That Weight,” would keep his 4/4 beat steady through the line “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight, carry that weight, a long time,” until the natural break, which comes at the end of the phrase, where, just after the word “time,” a wordless, two-beat half-bar readies itself for the repeated chorus. In that half-bar, there might be space for a quick roll, or a roll and a triplet, or something fancy with snare and hi-hat—really, any variety of filler. The filler is the fun stuff, and it could be said, without much exaggeration, that nearly all the fun stuff in drumming takes place in those two empty beats between the end of a phrase and the start of another. Ringo Starr, who interpreted his role fairly modestly, does nothing much in that two-beat space: mostly, he just provides eight even, straightforward sixteenth notes (da-da-da-da / da-da-da-da). In a good cover version of the song, Phil Collins, an extremely sophisticated drummer who was never a modest performer with Genesis, does a tight roll that begins with featherlight delicacy on a tom-tom and ends more firmly on his snare, before going back to the beat. But whatever their stylistic differences, the modest and the sophisticated drummer share an understanding that there is a proper space for keeping the beat, and a much smaller space for departing from it, like a time-out area in a classroom. The difference is just that the sophisticated drummer is much more often in time-out, and is always busily showing off to the rest of the class while he is there.

Keith Moon ripped all this up. There is no time-out in his drumming, because there is no time-in. It is all fun stuff. The first principle of Moon’s drumming was that drummers do not exist to keep the beat. He did keep the beat, of course, and very well, but he did it by every method except the traditional one. Drumming is repetition, as is rock music generally, and Moon clearly found repetition dull. So he played the drums like no one else—and not even like himself. I mean that no two bars of Moon’s playing ever sound the same; he is in revolt against consistency, he is always vandalizing repetition. Everyone else in the band gets to improvise, so why should the drummer be nothing more than a condemned metronome? He saw himself as a soloist playing with an ensemble of other soloists. It follows from this that the drummer will be playing a line of music, just as, say, the guitarist does, with undulations and crescendos and leaps. It further follows that the snare drum and the bass drum, traditionally the ball and chain of rhythmic imprisonment, are no more interesting than any of the other drums in the kit; and that you will need lots of those other drums. Lots and lots. By the mid-1970s, when Moon’s kit was said to be “the biggest in the world”—and what a deliciously absurd conceit, anyway!—he had two bass drums and at least twelve tom-toms, arrayed in stacks like squadrons of spotlights; he looked like a cheerful boy who had built elaborate fortifications for the sole purpose of destroying them. But he needed all those drums, as a flute needs all its stops or a harp its strings, so that his tremendous bubbling cascades, his liquid journeys, could be voiced: he needed not to run out of drums as he ran around them.

Average musical performance, like athletic prowess and viticulture—and perhaps novel writing?—has probably improved in the last century. Nowadays, more and more pianists can brilliantly run off some Chopin or Rachmaninoff in a concert hall, and the guy at the local drum shop is probably technically more adept than Keith Moon was. YouTube, which is a kind of permanent Special Olympics for show-offs, is full of young men wreaking double-jointed virtuosity on fabulously complex drum kits rigged up like artillery ranges. But so what? They can also backflip into their jeans from great heights and parkour across Paris. Moon disliked drum solos and did not perform them; the only one I have seen is pretty bad, a piece of anti–performance art—Moon sloppy and mindless, apparently drunk or stoned or both, and almost collapsing into the drums while he pounds them like pillows. He may have lacked the control necessary to sustain a long, complex solo; more likely, he needed the kinetic adventures of the Who to provoke him into his own. His cheerful way of conceding this was his celebrated remark that “I’m the best Keith Moon–style drummer in the world.” Which was also a way of saying, “I’m the best Who-style drummer in the world.”

Keith Moon–style drumming is a lucky combination of the artful and artless. To begin at the beginning: his drums always sounded good. He hit them nice and hard, and tuned the bigger tom-toms low (not for him the little eunuch toms of Kenney Jones, who palely succeeded him in the Who, after Moon’s death). He kept his snare pretty “dry.” This isn’t a small thing. The talentless three-piece jazz combo at your local hotel ballroom—dinner-jacketed old-timers hacking through the old favorites—almost certainly features a so-called drummer whose sticks are used so lightly that they barely embarrass the skins, and whose snare—wet, buzzy, loose—sounds like a repeated sneeze. A good dry snare, properly struck, is a bark, a crack, a report. How a drummer hits the snare, and how it sounds, can determine a band’s entire dynamic. Groups like Supertramp and the Eagles seem soft, in large part, because the snare is so drippy and mildly used (and not just because elves are apparently squeezing the singers’ testicles).

There are three great albums by the Who, and these are also the three greatest Moon records: Live at Leeds (1970), a recording of an explosive concert at Leeds University on February 14, 1970, generally considered one of the greatest live albums in rock; Who’s Next (1971), the most famous Who album; and Quadrophenia (1973), a kind of successor to Tommy, a “rock opera” that nostalgically celebrates the 1960s Mod culture that had provoked and nourished the band in its earlier days. On these are such songs as “Substitute,” “My Generation,” “See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Baba O’Riley,” “Bargain,” “The Song Is Over,” “The Real Me,” “5.15,” “Sea and Sand,” and “Love, Reign o’er Me.” There is no great difference between the live concert recordings and the studio songs—all of them are full of improvisation and structured anarchy, fluffs and misses; all of them seem to have the rushed gratitude of something achieved only once. From which emerges the second great principle of Moon’s drumming: namely, that one is always performing, not recording, and that making mistakes is simply part of the locomotion of vitality. (In the wonderful song “The Dirty Jobs,” on Quadrophenia, you can hear Moon accidentally knock his sticks together three separate times while traveling around the kit. Most drummers would be horrified to be caught out on tape like this.)

For Moon, this vitality meant trying to shape oneself to the changing dynamics of the music, listening as much to the percussive deviations of the bass line as to the steady, obvious line of the lead singer. As a result, it is impossible to separate him from the music the Who made. The story goes that, in 1968, Jimmy Page wanted John Entwistle on bass and Keith Moon on drums for his new band; and, as sensational as this group might have been, it would not have sounded either like Led Zeppelin or the Who. If Led Zeppelin’s drummer, John Bonham, were substituted for Moon on “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the song would lose half its passionate propulsion, half its wild excess; if Moon sat in for Bonham on “Good Times, Bad Times,” the tight stability of that piece would instantly evaporate.

Bonham’s drumming sounds as if he has thought about phrasing; he never overreaches himself, because he seems to have so perfectly measured the relationship between rhythmic order and rhythmic deviation: his superb but tightly limited breaks on the snare, and his famously rapid double strokes on the bass drum, are constantly played against the unvarying solidity of his hi-hat, which keeps a steady single beat throughout the bars. (In a standard 4/4 bar, the hi-hat sounds the four whole beats, or perhaps sounds eight beats in eighth notes.) That is the “Bonham sound,” heard in the celebrated long solo—one of devilish complexity—in “Moby Dick,” on the live album The Song Remains the Same. Everything is judged, and rightly placed: astonishing order. Moon’s drumming, by contrast, is about putting things in the wrong place: the appearance of astonishing disorder. You can copy Bonham exactly; but to copy Moon would be to bottle his spilling energy, which is much harder.

The third great Moon principle, of packing as much as possible into a single bar of music, produces the extraordinary variety of his playing. He seems to be hungrily reaching for everything at once. Take, for instance, the bass drum and the cymbal. Generally speaking, drummers strike these with respectable monotony. You hit the crash cymbal at the end of a drum roll, as a flourish, but also as a kind of announcement that time-out has, boringly enough, ended, and that the beat must go back to work. Moon does something strange with both instruments. He tends to “ride” his bass drum: he keeps his foot hovering over the bass drum pedal as a nervous driver might keep a foot on a brake, and strikes the drum often, sometimes continuously throughout a bar. When he breaks to do a roll around the toms, he will keep the bass drum going simultaneously, so that the effect is of two drummers playing together. Meanwhile, he delights in hitting his cymbals as often as humanly possible, and off the beat—just before or after the logical moment—rather as jazz and big-band drummers do. The effect of all these cymbals being struck is of someone shouting out at unexpected moments while waiting in line—a yammer of exclamation marks. (Whereas his habit of entering a song by first crashing a cymbal and then ripping around the kit is like someone bursting into a quiet room and shouting: “I’m here!”)

So alive and free is this drumming that one tends to emphasize its exuberance at the expense of its complexity. But the playing on songs like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” or “Bargain” or “Love, Reign o’er Me” or “The Song Is Over” is extremely complex: in addition to the intricate cymbal work, Moon is constantly flicking off little triplets (sometimes on the toms, but sometimes with his feet, by playing the two bass drums together); using a technique known as the paradiddle to play one tom against another; and doing press rolls and double-stroke rolls (methods by which, essentially, you bounce the sticks on the drum to get them to strike faster notes), and irregular flams on the snare drum (a flam involves hitting the drum with the two sticks not simultaneously but slightly staggered, and results in a sound more like “blat” than “that”). New technology allows listeners to isolate a song’s individual players, and the astonishing isolated drum tracks from “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Behind Blue Eyes” can be found on YouTube. On “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the drumming is staggeringly vital, with Moon at once rhythmically tight and massively spontaneous. On both that song and “Behind Blue Eyes,” you can hear him do something that was instinctive, probably, but which is hardly ever attempted in ordinary rock drumming: breaking for a fill, Moon fails to stop at the obvious end of the musical phrase and continues with his rolling break, over the line and into the start of the next phrase. In poetry, this failure to stop at the end of the line, this challenge to metrical closure, this desire to get more in, is called enjambment. Moon is the drummer of enjambment.

For me, this playing is like an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to: a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but disheveled, careful and lawless, right and wrong. (You can encounter such sentences in Lawrence’s prose, in Bellow’s, sometimes in David Foster Wallace’s.) Such a sentence would be a breaking out, an escape. And drumming has always represented for me that dream of escape, when the body forgets itself, surrenders its awful self-consciousness. I taught myself the drums, but for years I was so busy being a good boy that I lacked the courage to own any drums. One could timidly admit to playing them, only if that meant that one never actually played them. At school, I did play in a rock band, but I kept the fact very quiet. The kids I played rock music with did not overlap with the world of classical music. Drumming was a notional add-on, a supplement to the playing of “proper” instruments, a merely licensed rebellion. At school, the classical music path was the scholastic path. Choir school was like being at conservatory—daily rehearsal and performance. And then, later, as a teenager, to work hard at the piano, to sing in the choir, to play the trumpet in a youth orchestra, to pass exams in music theory, to study sonata form in Beethoven, to sit for a music scholarship, to talk to one’s parents about Bach (or even, daringly, the Beatles!), to see the London Symphony Orchestra at the Albert Hall, even just to fall asleep during Aida—all this was approved, was part of being a good student. Nowadays, I see schoolkids bustling along the sidewalk, their large instrument cases strapped to them like diligent coffins, and I know their weight of obedience. Happy obedience, too: that cello or French horn brings lasting joy, and a repertoire more demanding and subtle than rock music’s. But fuck the laudable ideologies, as Roth’s Mickey Sabbath puts it: subtlety is not rebellion, and subtlety is not freedom, and sometimes it is rebellious freedom that one wants, and only rock music can deliver it. And sometimes one despises oneself, in near middle age, for still being such a merely good student.

Georges Bataille has some haunting words (in Erotism) about how the workplace is the scene of our domestication and repression: it is where we are forced to put away our Dionysianism. The crazy sex from the night before is as if forgotten; the drunken marital argument of the weekend is erased; the antic children have disappeared; all the writhing, passionate music of life is turned off; and the excremental body is fraudulently clothed—a false bourgeois order dresses you, and the sack and quick penury await you if you don’t obey. But Bataille might also have mentioned school, for school is work, too, work before the adult workplace, and school tutors the adolescent in repression and the rectitude of the bourgeois order, at the very moment in life when, temperamentally and biologically, one is most Dionysiac and most enraged by the hypocritical ordinances of the parental league.

So adolescents quickly get split in two, with an inner and outer self, a lawless sprite inside and a lawful ambassador outside: rock music, or your first sexual relationship, or reading, or writing poetry, or probably all four at once—why not?—represent the possibilities for inward escape. And playing rock is different again from playing classical music, or from writing poetry or painting. In all these other arts, though there may be trancelike moments and even stages of wildness and excess, the pressure of creating lasting forms demands discipline and silence, a charged, concentrated precision; mindful of Pascal’s severe aphorism about the importance of staying quietly in a room, one does just that—one did just that, even at the age of sixteen—and stares at the sheet of paper, even if the words are not coming. Writing and reading, beautiful as they are, still carry with them the faintest odor of the exam room. (It is exam-silent in the room where I write these words, and how terrible, in a way, is this disjunction between literary expression and the violence of its content!) Rock music, though, is noise, improvisation, collaboration, theater, exuberance, showing off, truancy, pantomime, aggression, bliss, tranced collectivity. It is not concentration so much as fission.

Imagine, then, the allure of the Who, whose vandalizing velocity was such an incitement to the adolescent’s demon sprite: “I’m wet and I’m cold, / But thank God I ain’t old,” sang young Roger Daltrey on Quadrophenia, in a song about a “Mod” teenager (named Jimmy, no less) who gets thrown out of his home:

Here by the sea and sand

Nothing ever goes as planned

I just couldn’t face going home.

It was such a drag on my own.

They finally threw me out.

My mum got drunk on stout.

My dad couldn’t stand on two feet

As he lectured about morality.

It is no accident that punk got a fair amount of its inspiration from the Who (the Sex Pistols often performed “Substitute”), or that, a generation later, a band like Pearl Jam would devotedly cover “Love, Reign o’er Me.” (Or that Chad Smith, the volcanic drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, has cited Moon as an influence.) Here was a band that, in one obvious way, embodied success, but that, in a less obvious way, dared failure—I mean the large amount of improvisation in their songs, the risky, sometimes loose, excess of their concert performances, the violent earnestness of so many of the lyrics. And the epicenter of this successful failure, this man who wanted to pack as much of the fun stuff into his playing as humanly possible, was Keith Moon.

The Who were a kind of performance-art band: there was plenty of calculation amid the carelessness. Pete Townshend was a graduate of the Ealing art school (whose other musical alumni from the 1960s were Freddie Mercury and Ronnie Wood) and has sometimes claimed that the idea of smashing his guitar onstage was partly inspired by Gustav Metzger’s “auto-destructive art” movement. That high tone is quite Townshendian. But in one way, it is hard not to think of Keith Moon’s life as a perpetual “happening”; a gaudy, precarious, self-destructing art installation, whose gallery placard simply reads: “The Rock-and-Roll Life, Late Twentieth Century.” In a manner that is also true of his drumming, he seemed to live at once naively and self-consciously: utterly spontaneous in his scandalous misbehavior, and yet also aware that this is how one should live if one is a famous and rich rock musician. His parody is very hard to separate from his originality; his parody is his originality. This is one of the most charming elements of his posture behind the drum kit: he is always clowning around—standing up sometimes, at other times puffing out his cheeks like Dizzy Gillespie, grimacing and grinning like a fool in some opera buffa, twirling his sticks, doing silly phantom rolls just above the skins of the drums. A child might think that Moon was a circus performer. His drumming, like his life, was a serious joke.

Nowadays, Moon would probably be classed as having both ADHD and bipolar disorder; fortunately for the rest of us, he grew up in postwar, nontherapeutic Britain and medicated himself with booze, illegal drugs, and illegal drumming. Born into a modest, working-class household in north London in 1946, Moon had a paltry education. He was restless, hyperactive, and often played to the gallery. An art teacher described him as “retarded artistically, idiotic in other respects,” and the authorities were doubtless relieved when he left school at the age of fifteen. “You never felt, ‘One day he is going to be famous,’” a friend told Tony Fletcher, Moon’s biographer. “You felt more likely that he was going to end up in prison.”

He had little formal training on the drums. As Gogol’s brilliant prose, or Richard Burton’s swaggering acting, embodies the temperamental exhibitionism of its creator, so Moon’s playing is an extension of his theatrical hyperactivity. His mother noticed that he got bored easily and quickly lost interest in his train set or Meccano. Throughout his short life, he was seemingly addicted to practical jokes: he set off cherry bombs in hotels, dressed up as Adolf Hitler or Noël Coward, rode a wheelchair down an airport staircase, smashed up hotel rooms, drove a car into a swimming pool, and got arrested for breaching the peace. On planes, Moon might do his “chicken soup” routine, which involved carrying a can of Campbell’s chicken soup on board, emptying it, unseen, into a sick bag, and then pretending to retch violently. At which point he “would raise it, and pour the sicklike soup back into his mouth, offering up a hearty sigh of relief while innocently inquiring of fellow passengers what they found so disgusting.” There was a relentlessness, a curious, drunken patience, to this theatricalism, which often needed preparation and forethought, and certainly demanded a kind of addicted commitment. “Keith wore the Nazi uniform like something of a second skin, donning it intermittently for the next six or seven years,” writes Tony Fletcher. Six or seven years. His alcoholism and coke snorting were certainly addictions, but perhaps they were merely the solvents needed to maintain the larger, primal addiction to joking and playacting.

Performance is a way of sublimely losing oneself, and there is a sense in which Moon as drummer was another role alongside Moon as Hitler, Moon as Noël Coward, Moon as arsonist, Moon as sick-bag buffoon, and Moon as crazy “rock star.” (“I don’t give a damn about a Holiday Inn room,” he grandly said after some act of vandalism. “There’s ten million of them exactly the same.”) But “role” suggests choice, freedom, calculation, whereas these roles don’t seem to have been chosen so much as depended on. Or to put it another way: despite all the gaiety and partying, the only performance that seems to have truly liberated Moon was the one he enacted behind the drum kit. I often think of Moon and Glenn Gould together, despite their great differences. Both started performing as very young men (Moon was seventeen when he began playing with the Who, Gould twenty-two when he made his first great recording of The Goldberg Variations); both were idiosyncratic, revolutionary performers for whom spontaneity and eccentricity were important elements (for instance, both enjoyed singing and shouting while playing); both men had exuberant, pantomimic fantasy lives—Gould wrote about Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” and appeared on Canadian television and radio in the guise of invented comic personae such as Karlheinz Klopweisser and Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite, “the Dean of British conductors”; both were gregarious and essentially solitary; neither man practiced very much (at least, Gould claimed not to practice, and it is impossible to imagine Moon having the patience or sobriety to practice); and with both men, all the other performing (Gould’s hand washing and coat wearing and melodramatic, pill-popping hypochondria) has the slightly desperate quality of mania—except the performance behind the instrument, which has the joyous freedom of true escape and self-dissolution: Gould becomes the piano, Moon becomes the drums.

For both Moon and Gould, the performer’s life was very short—Gould abandoned concert performance at the age of thirty-one; Moon was dead by the age of thirty-two and had not played well for years. He had perhaps eight really great drumming years, between 1968 and 1976. Throughout this period, he was ingesting ludicrous volumes of drink and drugs. There are stories of him swallowing twenty or thirty pills at once. In San Francisco, in 1973, he had taken so many depressants (perhaps to come down from a high, or to deal with preconcert nerves) that, after slopping his way through several songs, he collapsed and had to be taken to the hospital. When his stomach was pumped, it was found to contain quantities of PCP, a drug described by Fletcher as “used to put agitated monkeys and gorillas to sleep.” What magically happened onstage, while Moon was being carted away, was incised, years ago, on my teenage cerebellum. Pete Townshend asked the crowd whether anyone could come up and play the drums. Scott Halprin, a nineteen-year-old, and presumably soon to be the most envied teenager in America, got onto the stage and played with the Who. “Everything was locked into place,” Halprin later said of the gargantuan drum kit; “anyplace you could hit there would be something there. All the cymbals overlapped.”

Both Moon and Gould were rather delicate, even handsome young men who coarsened with age and developed a thickness of feature, an almost simian rind. At twenty, Moon was slight and sweet, with a bowl of black hair upended on his head, and dark, dopey eyes, and the arched eyebrows of a clown. By the end of his life, he looked ten years older than he was—puffy, heavy, his features no longer sweetly clownish but slightly villainous—Bill Sykes, played by Moon’s old drinking friend Oliver Reed, the arched eyebrows now thicker and darker, seemingly painted on, as if he had become a caricature of himself. Friends were shocked by his appearance. He was slower and less inventive, less vital, on the drums; the album Who Are You, his last record, attests to the decline. Perhaps no one was very surprised when he died, from a massive overdose of the drug Heminevrin, a sedative prescribed for alcohol withdrawal symptoms. “He’s gone and done it,” Townshend told Roger Daltrey. Thirty-two pills were found in his stomach, and the equivalent of a pint of beer in his blood. His girlfriend, who found him, told a coroner’s court that she had often seen him pushing pills down his throat, without liquid. Almost exactly two years later, John Bonham died from asphyxiation, after hours of drinking vodka. He was less than a year older than Moon.

There are two famous Glenn Gould recordings of The Goldberg Variations: the one he made at the age of twenty-two, and the one he made at the age of fifty-one, just before he died. The opening aria of that piece, the lucid, ornate melody that Gould made his own, sounds very different in each recording. In the young man’s version, the aria is fast, sweet, running clear like water. In the middle-aged man’s recording, the aria is half as fast, the notes so magnetically separated that they seem almost unrelated to one another. The first aria is cocky, exuberant, optimistic, vital, fun, sound-filled; the second aria is reflective, seasoned, wintry, grieving, silence-haunted. These two arias stand facing each other, separated by almost thirty years, as the gates of a life. I prefer the second version; but when I listen to the second, how I want to be the first!


Copyright © 2012 by James Wood

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Meet the Author

James Wood is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a visiting lecturer at Harvard University. He is the author of How Fiction Works, as well as two essay collections, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self, and a novel, The Book Against God, all published by FSG.

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