Some Book Reviews and Also the History of the Earth (transcript)

Published March 3rd, 2019

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If a fire, mek it burn, if a blood, mek it run! Oh lord, have mercy. Mercy lord, mercy lord. Have you ever been to a Greek Orthodox wedding? I went to one, and there was a lot of chanting and singing, “Lord have mercy,” and we had to stand up whenever they said that and then sit down. Then 30 seconds later they’d chant, “Lord have mercy,” and I’d be standing again. Up and down and up and down and it went on for what felt like 45 minutes but was probably only 40. The wedding reception was in Pasadena, and this all happened before I lived here in the wonderful San Gabriel Valley, we were down on the coast in San Pedro where it’s cool, and so Pasadena seemed really fucking hot to me.

Because it was really fucking hot, and we were parked a couple blocks away and it wasn’t until we got to the reception and saw the pile of gifts that I realized we’d left our gifts in the car. So I walked back through the heat to get them, and they were heavy and I could have made two trips but that day at that time I wasn’t smart enough to do that, so I walked down the hot Pasadena street lugging two heavy gifts, sweating and panting like a dog, only dogs benefit from panting, we don’t, but I got the stuff back to the reception and sat down at a table in front of a fan and stayed there until the whole thing was over.

That doesn’t have anything to do with anything, but consider it my introduction to you. I am Michael Phillips, and THIS IS NOT A TEST. Sometimes I wonder what someone listening to this for the first time must think when the beginning doesn’t make any sense, then I remember that it doesn’t matter, because you can’t please everyone, and if someone is turned off by the image of me sweating in Pasadena, well, then they’re probably not THIS IS NOT A TEST material anyway, are they. So hello you first-time listener out there, I’ll try to calm down now and make some sort of linear sense, though I have to warn you that that is not my stock in trade. Not my forte, as the kids say. So we’ll have to see how it goes.

I don’t know why people make us go to weddings anyway. No one enjoys a wedding. No one. Not the guests, not the families, not the people getting married. Why do we do it? It’s like 4th of July parades or going off to war. Nobody enjoys it, but we just keep doing it because that’s the way it’s always been and you don’t want to mess with the way things have always been. There’s no benefit to that. People just point at you and laugh, and wonder why you don’t just get along. Why you put yourself through the misery of original thought or behavior. Hey, I don’t have an answer. I’m the question man, remember?

Did you know that in the past 40 million years, the earth’s magnetic poles have reversed 143 times? Yeah, they have. Meaning your compass needle, if you had a mechanical compass, maybe you do, points north now. But historically speaking, about half the time during the past 40 million years it pointed south. The magnetic poles have been flipping forever, or for the four and a half billion years that the earth has been around anyway. It doesn’t happen overnight, the reversal, it takes 10,000 years. They’ve measured all this and proven it, the scientists, but no one has any idea why it happens.

That 40 million years, the last 40 million years where the earth’s polarity has flipped 143 times, that time period isn’t even one percent of the earth’s total age. So it’s just a blip, really, that 40 million years. But it’s the most active period, they’ve figured, for these magnetic pole reversals. In the distant past they happened less frequently. But now it’s every quarter million years or so, on average. So things are heating up. You know, if you take the really long view of things.

Average life expectancy right now is about 72 years. It’s as much as a decade higher in some places, and lower in others, but that’s the average, for the whole world. Which means that when the next reversal starts, assuming life expectancy then is what it is now, about 400 generations will be born, just during the switch, the reversal that takes 10,000 years. You know, that’s assuming a generation is about 25 years, which it is. At the moment. All of this is to say that you’d probably have to go back about 10,000 generations to find people whose compass needles pointed south. And there were no compasses back then, or even people really, as we’d recognize them. We’ve only been around for a couple hundred thousand years.

Taking the really long view of things – it’s difficult. I mean the millions of years kind of view, or even the 10,000-year view. It’s difficult because we don’t know anything about anything that happened 10,000 years ago. Sure, we know what science has speculated and postulated and extrapolated for us, much of which is probably as close to accurate as it needs to be. Be we don’t have any ten thousand-year-old stories, you know, and I think we really need stories to bring us into history. But it’s also all kind of a joke since science updates itself every five minutes, and our understanding of the world we think we live on continues to change underneath our feet.

If you couldn’t tell, I’ve been reading a book called “North Pole, South Pole: The Epic Quest to Solve the Great Mystery of Earth’s Magnetism,” which is not something I was particularly interested in, but I get these emails from Amazon every day with deals on Kindle books, so if something is a dollar or $1.99 and it looks even vaguely interesting I may just buy it and read it, and then I end up with thoughts like these, about the earth and humans and which way the compass points, which doesn’t have any effect on my actual life. Or yours, I think it’s safe to assume.

I didn’t attend a Royal Academy like most of the dudes who did science back in the times they were discovering how magnetism worked and how the earth was wrapped up in all of it. I didn’t really read about science or discovery very much when I was a wee lad. I was interested in things, as most of us are, or were. I dabbled in electronics enough to know what a 120-volt electric shock felt like, or what several of them felt like, and I was mechanical by benefit of growing up around mechanically-inclined adults. Or one or two mechanically-inclined adult men anyway. But as far as studying a subject in a serious way, no, that wasn’t me. I preferred to stare at the ceiling. So I don’t know why I read books about scientific subjects now at my advanced age. It isn’t like I retain a lot of the information. I read in kind of an ‘in one eye, out the other’ fashion.

I wish I could blame my remarkable lack of memory on age or booze or herb or Agent Orange or a notorious and tragic mosh pit incident, but I can’t. I’ve just never been able to remember anything. I can remember things, tasks or instructions or steps to do something that I repeat a few dozen times, and I remember the lyrics to every song that was on the radio between, say, 1965 and 1977 or so, but that’s about it. So when I read a book I come away from it with an impression more than a memory. I’m like a half-blind artist who becomes an impressionist painter, only where words and life and the world are concerned instead of paint.

So I don’t know why I read those kinds of books, but I do know that I like to organize things. Is that related? It may be. Not like organize things on my desk – those things are not organized – but history, thoughts, data. I love databases. I think I don’t trust my memory, which I shouldn’t, as I’ve explained, so when I enter some piece of information into a database I feel like I’m locking it away safely, so I can safely forget about it, but still come back to it whenever I need it. Which may be never, but it will be there anyway. That is my electronic memory, I guess. I may just be the working model of the hybrid of man and machine that they wrote about in 1940s science fiction.

I think I’m an unlikely database type. And an unlikely programmer of web interfaces to databases. I hate math, and programming eventually leads to or involves math in some horrible way, so it’s not a natural kind of flowing vibe for me. But it’s all control, isn’t it. Databases and programming. You are controlling the environment for the user, even if you’re the only user. So maybe it’s just control that I’m after. Not like megalomaniac control, but just control over the chaos that we’re all slowly sinking in. How can we not be sinking in chaos when we live on a planet that can’t even keep its own magnetic poles from completely reversing whenever they feel like it? It’s terrifying if you let yourself think about it. Thanks a lot, Obama.

Well, the filthy three-legged junkyard dogs of radio continue to invade podcasting with their market-research-driven copycat garbage and their advertising and investment and marketing plans in an attempt to crush the medium, if we can call it that, down to the same lowest-common-denominator level that radio lives at. The good news is they will never succeed because any idiot with an Internet connection can still make a podcast, evidence of which you are currently hearing, so the smooth, imbecilic tones of the radio clowns will never take over completely.

I’m looking at you, everybody on every “storytelling” show on NPR. You are all evidence of the suffocating lack of originality on radio, since all of you are essentially doing your own pointless and unnecessary versions of “This American Life,” in the same, creepily similar voices. And what’s with every person who is ever interviewed anywhere these days starting every answer with, “Right, so…” or “Sure, so…”? Have they all graduated from the same question answering class? Was there a seminar that everyone in the world attended while I was asleep one morning?

It’s not just podcasting of course, it’s the same thing everywhere. In music, one person sticks their head up above the sea of shit and screams something original, and a week later 40,000 pickers and pluckers and warblers are copying it in hopes of making a dollar. It’s why 95% of female vocalists sound like whining babies, and why every “rock” band sounds like a sleeping pill commercial and their members look like members of your high school math club. Or slide rule society or whatever nerdy thing your high school had that was populated by people who were very very smart and probably really nice, but who definitely did not “rock,” in any way, shape, or form.

It’s the same thing everywhere. It’s why 95% of the new books published are part of a series. Like “The Way of the Shaman: Book 7,” or “Wicked Witches of the Midwest Book 1,” or “The Licanius Trilogy Book 4,” or “Book Number 2 in The Inspector Anal Wink Chronicles.” Three of those are real titles, can you guess which ones? The answer is it doesn’t matter. This avalanche of words and sentences is happening because at some point in time some goober had some success selling a series of books on Amazon, so ever since that day, every seminar, blog post, consultant, and wandering jerk off in a mobile home doling out advice to amateur authors has said, “If you want to sell a load of books on Amazon, make a series, people love series.” And just like that, every new book is suddenly part of a series. Because that’s just how it’s done now. It’s the prevailing “wisdom.”

It’s the same thing everywhere. It’s why 95% of movies are also part of a series or come from a comic book or are lazy copies of movies that have already been made. “A Star is Born” was nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards this year, and it’s the fourth time the same movie has been made. The fourth time. The first “Star is Born” was also nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. More than eighty years ago. I did an Oscar wrap-up show four years ago called, “The 2015 Oscar ceremony wrap-up,” and I should have just reposted it this year. It’s the same thing every year, the Oscars, so one wrap-up is good forever. It’s all you need.

Do you see how it goes? Do you see how it works? Most of us are followers – some days I think all of us are followers – but most of us are followers and that’s why most things stink. Though some days, yes, it seems like everything stinks. If you value originality and creative juice and guts and blood and humanity in your art – maybe not all at the same time, but you get the idea – but if you crave those things, these are not halcyon days for you. Not for you, my friend, not for you. Keep searching the margins and the cracks for the weird and the beautiful. It’s there, it’s just hidden behind a lot more lint and dust than it used to be. Underneath more fertilizer.

That being said, how about some book reviews! It occurs to me that as someone who doesn’t remember anything about the books I read, I’m eminently qualified to give book reviews. I feel like my precious gold mine of insight and valuable knowledge should be shared with the world. Books are important, they tell me, so what better for us to talk about. Okay, let me look at this list of books I’ve read in the past year or so, and see what looks like something you can’t live without hearing me talk about.

Okay, here we go. Let’s start with – let’s get out of the way, I should say, most of these rock and roll biographies or autobiographies or memoirs because most of them stink. Anthony Kiedis wrote a book called “Scar Tissue,” and Patty Schemel from Hole wrote a book called “Hit So Hard.” I will lump these two together because they are awful for the same reason, and that is they are about drug addiction. And all due respect to all of you drug addicts out there, but each of your stories is exactly the same, and that story is boring, boring, boring. Because the life of a drug addict is boring. I don’t care if you’re playing music in football stadiums, if you are a drug addict, your story is boring. Next! Listen, I’m not diminishing or dismissing the stories of drug addicts. I’m just saying you can read one and then never read another one. I’m here to save you time.

On a related note, Stephen Davis has written many rock bios and he wrote one about Stevie Nicks called “Gold Dust Woman.” Stevie was no slouch when it came to drug use, and that makes a lot of her story repetitive and irritating, but even when you take the drugs away it seems that her life was mostly repetitive and irritating, so I’m afraid this one was a wash. I won’t say a waste, because every book is wasted on me for reasons I’ve previously explained. Some of them are a waste in their contents too, it’s not just me. I’ve talked about Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles” autobiography before I believe, and that is as worthless and self-mythologizing-while-claiming-not-to-be-self-mythologizing a piece of tripe as has ever been committed to the page. If I may be so bold.

On the other hand, the wonderful Sylvain Sylvain wrote a book about his life, which includes his time in the New York Dolls called, “There’s No Bones in Ice Cream” and it was so good I read it twice. You’d think I would remember something from it since I read it twice, but sadly that is not so. I’m giving you overall impressions here, which I would argue are relevant when we’re talking about books written by people who are ostensibly artists since art is all about impressions, isn’t it. Mayte Garcia is an artist of another kind, a dancer, and as you may know, she was married to Prince, and she’s written a book that is mostly about being married to Prince, called, “The Most Beautiful: My Life with Prince.”

I don’t recall what my expectations of a book by Mayte Garcia were, if I had any, it may have been an impulse buy, but if I did have any expectations they were exceeded by what turned out to be a great book. Informative, as you’d want such a book to be, yet still somehow reserved and classy. It was moving in many places, but I’ll admit to having a strange soft spot for Prince that I can’t rationally explain. I’ve enjoyed much of his music for a long time, and I saw him perform everywhere from basketball arenas to a punk rock club with a capacity of about 150. Always loved him, he was always interesting, but I didn’t love him love him. Like the way I feel about Bob and Peter and Bunny and the Wailers music. But I’ll tell you, man, walking through Paisley Park on that tour that I swore I’d never take, it was emotional. I can’t explain it or justify it, but that little fucker gets to me, even from beyond the grave. Mayte’s book was very nice. Read it.

Speaking of punk rock clubs with a capacity of about 150, that was the 7th St. Entry at First Avenue, and that’s where a lot of the action in Cyn Collins’ oral history, “Complicated Fun: The Birth of Minneapolis Punk and Indie Rock, 1974-1984” takes place. It’s odd reading an “oral history” of history you lived through. Most of us understand that everyone remembers things differently, but reading a book where people are describing things that happened while you were standing in the same room really drives that point home. It’s also funny reading a book like that because I don’t think we usually know when we’re living in something that will be considered a historical or important time in a certain place. You know, unless there’s a war of falling skyscrapers or something. When that shit is going down I think everyone knows they are living through history.

But the music scene in the twin cities in the late 70s/early 80s was just a local music scene. I guarantee you that no one sitting through their 20th Husker Du set of the year was pondering how historical it all was. Seeing Prince at First Avenue was cool, but it wasn’t unusual, so while you were jammed in there you may have felt fortunate, or more clever than everyone who wasn’t there, but it didn’t feel historic. Even the show in the 7th St. Entry – it was just Prince doing what Prince always did, no matter where he was or who was around.

Steve Hines, who wrote a truly great book of short stories called, “The Late Season,” told me about a book by Ian Port called, “The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll” and that was a good one. I know a lot about the history of the electric guitar, but there’s always something new to learn, and there was plenty that was new to me in this book. Leo Fender and Les Paul hung out a lot more than you’d expect, and all of those guys who were developing the electric guitar – and it was more than just Leo and Les – they were all bouncing ideas off each other and learning from each other’s work, improving on it and generally competing to make the best machines they could make.

On a non-musical kind of wave, I’ve also read “Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet” by Claire Evans, and “How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone” by Brian McCullough. McCullough’s book seemed skimpy, but that’s probably just because I listened to a lot of his podcast, and that podcast is just hundreds of hours of Internet history. It’s really a goldmine if you’re interested in that kind of geek history. “Broad Band” was great. I’ve worked beside women ever since I crawled into the Internet world back in the mid-90s, so I’ve never considered it a boy’s club or assumed that men ran or invented everything.

But as is just normal when it comes to everything on earth, men’s achievements are talked about and endlessly rehashed while women’s achievements may be grudgingly mentioned here and there if they are mentioned at all. That’s just leftover patriarchy, which I’ve thought has been crumbling for 40 years, but seems to still stand somehow. But books like “Broad Band” tell the story of the women who were responsible for the Internet becoming that thing that you take for granted. Read it.

On the literary side of the bed, we have “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” essays by Alexander Chee, “Choose Your Own Disaster” by Dana Schwartz, and “A Farewell to Walmart” by Carly Hallman. Chee and Schwartz, boo. You lose. Wait, I feel like the book by Chee pulled me into his world. It wasn’t a world I particularly gave a shit about, but he took me somewhere, so I give him credit for that. But if you put a gun to my head I couldn’t tell you what was in the Dana Schwartz book. I mean I don’t even have an impression of it, which tells me it was probably empty and useless. Which leaves us with Carly Hallman’s “A Farewell to Walmart,” which is a short little sniglet of a book, but completely enjoyable. Enough to make me look her up and see what else she’s written. Turns out there’s a novel called “Year of the Goose” which I have not yet read, but I most certainly will.

I didn’t read this recently, but I have to mention Miranda July’s novel “The First Bad Man.” It’s her first novel and it’s as magically engrossing as everything she writes. And every movie she makes, and if Instagram is any indication, everything she just does in her life, walking around and existing. And I am also obligated to mention the latest Charles Bukowski collection “On Drinking,” which is yet another thematic “greatest hits” piece of commerce which offers very little in the way of anything new or unusual. What HarperCollins should be doing is repairing the posthumous collections that John Martin spewed his hateful idiocy all over, but maybe there’s not enough return on investment in that.

Here’s a few more: “Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons” by George Pendle, “Life at the Dakota: New York’s Most Unusual Address” by Stephen Birmingham, “World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made” by Irving Howe, and “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail” by Ben Montgomery. Now I didn’t lump those four together because they all have colons in their titles, but look at that, they do. I think a colon is pretty much a requirement now for the typical book title, so don’t hold that against them.

John Parsons was one strange dude, and that’s for sure, so “Strange Angel” is a good title for that one. He was obsessed with rockets and his team that did testing in the dry riverbed of the arroyo in Pasadena were called “the suicide squad” by others in their field. But there barely was a field, as far as rockets were concerned, which was a surprising revelation to someone who grew up in the 1960s when everyone seemed interested in rockets. When Parsons was doing his pioneering work, most “serious” scientists thought rockets were stupid and would never amount to anything. Of course what Parsons did led to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, so he got the last laugh there. Or maybe not, since he ultimately blew himself up while experimenting in his garage. He was also into satanism and shared a house with L. Ron Hubbard, but mainly the book is about rockets.

“Grandma Gatewood’s Walk,” I don’t know. Interesting story about an interesting woman, but I couldn’t warm up to it. Maybe because I don’t know anything about the Appalachian mountains and haven’t spent much time in that part of the country, but it just kind of left me flat. “Life at the Dakota” and “World of Our Fathers” were both crazy detailed stories that will suck you in and take you down the river to wherever your river empties into the ocean. A book about an apartment building doesn’t seem like it would be much, does it, but it’s fascinating, coming as it did at a very interesting time in the history of New York City. Don’t read it expecting a lot about John and Yoko, because they are barely in it. It’s worth a read without them though. And “World of Our Fathers” – well, “The Journey of the East European Jews to America,” says it all. That’s more of a story than I can sum up in a jokey little snippet here, but it’s a long (like 768 pages long) detailed book that you will be able to live inside for quite some time if history like that turns your crank. It should because it’s the history of all of us. Not just east European Jews.

Finally, “In Pieces” by Sally Field and “Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy” by Savannah Knoop. Two books written by creeps. I mean people who were really kind of creeps if you had to have anything to do with them in real life. Fields doesn’t flinch from telling us the many ways she was a creep, and I think she realizes what a creep she was or is. Maybe she does. But I don’t think Savannah Knoop knows she’s a creep. That’s too bad. But no one really cares about that whole stupid JT Leroy thing anymore, do they? It hasn’t been the 90s for some time now, so I’m guessing they don’t. Sally Field’s book is a good read for curiosity’s sake, the Knoop book, no. Avoid.

Well, there you are. Books are so groovy. What would we do without them? I should point out that every one of the books I just talked about, with the exception of the latest Bukowski thing, were all read on the Kindle. It took me a minute to warm up to the Kindle, maybe because the first one I had was a big, heavy Kindle “Fire.” Now that I have a slimmer, lightweight Kindle Paperwhite, I have to say that reading a paper book has become kind of a drag. There are drawbacks to the Kindle of course, but I think the paper book has even more in the way of drawbacks and inconveniences. There is the problem of history and the future where the Kindle and all electronic versions of art are concerned, and that’s nothing to sneeze at, but I can’t talk about it now. There’s just no time left. Look at the clock!

Come back next time for episode number 100, which will be extremely super special. Or it will be just like every other episode, that remains to be seen. My money is on it being more of the same. Which could be seen as reassuring and comforting, in these times of rapid, senseless change and uncertainty. Yes indeed. You talk it like gladness, but that is madness I say. Later.