David Herrle interviews Megan Volpert on 1976

1976 cover 2published by Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016

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Illustrations ©Asher Haig

Annoying Introduction

Megan Volpert’s new book, 1976, is jam-packed and overflowing with allusions, anecdotes and parallels, making it both richly enjoyable and exhausting. Lukewarm readers won’t (and shouldn’t) have an easy time with it. There’s very little downtime – if at all, which is to be expected from such a fellow bricolagic brain or “a full head like mine,” as she herself puts it.

Including a famous and infamous cast of pols (George Wallace, JFK, Jerry Brown, Nixon, Kissinger, Gerald Ford, Carter, Reagan and so on), there’s a wide political focus that’s summarized and evaluated through rather liberal eyes, something that I don’t usually mind, though it’s tiresome that many folks (not necessarily this author) tend to be vigilant against the fascist under every bush while overlooking the commie in every tree. Perhaps Lester Bangs, who gets slapped around in 1976, put it best: “[T]hose hysterical paranoid Left-er New Left idiots are just as much to blame as anybody.”  However, 1976 doesn’t stack the deck too much, and many of her observations are worthy and careful, if not right on.

For some reason, one of the parts of the book that impressed and riled me most was Volpert’s excellent analysis and juxtaposition of Marilyn Monroe and Debbie Harry. I found myself getting somewhat defensive on Marilyn’s behalf, which is perhaps part of the whole problem of how people (men and women) tended to treat Marilyn: as something to be saved, from others and from herself.

What I like most about 1976 is the potpourri: Volpert’s deftness in orchestrating a shitload of historical and cultural episodes and tidbits, sometimes unexpectedly and refreshingly unpredictably. One minute she offers an aphoristic line such as “I feel strongly that every person should own a good hoodie,” and the next minute she admits to conflating Raymond Carver with John Cheever (at least it wasn’t Raymond Chandler or Garry Shandling or Chelsea Handler). She spiels about Ron Kovic’s well-known Born on the Fourth of July and even mentions undersung sci-fi author Samuel Delany. (For readers who are, as Volpert phrases it in the book, “into weird voodoo numerology shit,” Delany’s psychedelic and enthralling The Einstein Intersection was published in 1967, the last two numbers of which are 76 reversed). There are Pol Pot and Bob Dylan, Ayn Rand and George Wallace, The Ramones and Rush’s Geddy Lee, Francis Maloy, Jr. and the Son of Sam, Jane Curtin and John Belushi, racing greats Niki Lauda and James Hunt – and even the ghost of Carson McCullers. In other words, 1976 would be an indexer’s effing nightmare.

As usual, I let out my long winds full of devil’s advocates and contextual pedantry, and Volpert responded and rebutted with her usual deftness. And, as usual, she delivered some welcome bitch-slaps, one of them reminding me of a poignant, even affecting passage dedicated to her beloved grandfather (Bapa), which I neglected in a question about her seeming shortage of literary heartstrings. (Sorry, Bapa!) Anyway, I hope this strange exchange makes for a unique read that might result in some collateral knowledge. Knowledge without monumental confirmations or closure, that is. Interviews – like novels, like memoirs, like lectures, like drunken texts, like barbershop gossip – are really just a lot of gab, after all. Let Volpert say it better here: “The importance never arrives though. These things are really about process over product, which is symbolic of our collective human journeying throughout blah blah blah.”


David: Superior to the irritable-bowel 1960s, the tacky 1980s and the truly barf-worthy 1990s, the 1970s is, to me, a culturally brilliant decade (if not just for Columbo and Pink Floyd), so I quite welcomed a book on the era. From 1976’s prologue:

My bag is more about induction, analytics. You pour in the facts and the gumbo gets to simmering pretty quickly. So I’m not worried that these paragraphs will contain too many I-statements for a treatise on a time when I did not even exist. It can’t be a retrospective. It’s a retrospeculative.

In a way that can be taken as poking fun at your own egotism, Gore Vidal’s 1876 novel is evoked: “You have to have real cojones to title your book with just the year, to harpoon your personal human flag into the still-moving beast of time and claim your interpretation of that freeze-frame as the ultimate word on the subject.” Is this evocation self-deprecatory? What about that time before your time fascinates you? How does retrospeculative differ from restrospective?

Megan: Yes, the Vidal comparison is self-deprecatory on my head and straight deprecatory on his head. This whole book project actually began as a kind of joke. Books that are simply titled after the year that they are about tend to be huge hits in the marketplace. To care about that is, in the minds of many writers and readers, to cut against the current of authenticity that essayists are generally expected to maintain. But I’ve always had a fondness for Vidal’s minute hypocrisies, the showiness and almost character-acting implicit in much of his writing voice. Plus, his books end up next to mine on shelves a lot, so there is an odd spatial connection that has always drawn me.

The time before my time doesn’t necessarily fascinate me. I try to be forward-looking, but history interests me as far as the art of telling its story. When history is not written by the victors, it’s written by the rebels. As a teenager, I was keen on some mix of Dave Barry and Howard Zinn. As a young adult, I got into Thompson and Wolfe and gonzo journalism generally, beginning to see my own present as the history of the future. I can’t really go head-on with factual writing; that doesn’t interest me as a writerly pursuit. As a reader, I invest tons of time in straightforward non-fiction, like I’m a big fan of Rick Perlstein. But as a writer I enjoy that more speculative territory, recording snapshots of my own life in the stream of time as if at some future point it will have mattered alongside bands and elections and other things that are more self-evidently powerful in their moment than I am. I insert myself – unasked, full of ambition toward better futures. Like Vidal, I aim to hold it down mainly just by demonstrating I have the big balls to do so. Or more like Fran Lebowitz.


David: Your favorite movie is Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (the 1990s’ American Graffiti), which is conveniently set in 1976. Though I prefer SubUrbia, his more psychoanalytical overnight saga (which elevates both Parker Posey’s and Nicky Katt’s roles), I think Dazed immortalizes an era as deftly as Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, and I like how it favors character over plot, as Linklater prefers. Your play-by-play annotation of the movie is quite remarkable, and I share your adulation of Parker Posey: “Kneel before the sound of every ultra-hot cheerleader queen you have ever met, whose first words are, ‘Wake up, bitch!’” Please spiel about the movie, Linklater, high-school – and the almighty Parker Posey.

Megan: I liked SubUrbia, but actually I don’t think of it as part of Linklater’s oeuvre because he didn’t write it; he directed it and it’s based on that play by Eric Bogosian. School of Rock, which I also loved, also seems categorically different from movies that Linklater wrote. Both those movies have great soundtracks though. There is so much Sonic Youth on the SubUrbia soundtrack. The “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused came out a few month ago, and I’ve written about that here.

My favorite Parker Posey movie is House of Yes. I’m working on an essay about that, for a book project with performance artist Craig Gingrich-Philbrook. The book is about why we have aborted certain ideas for shows over the years. When I was at LSU, I wanted to do a freaky black box adaptation of House of Yes and it didn’t pan out for many reasons. I actually dislike the scripts for many things Posey has been in, but I respect her overall commitment to mainly making independent films and when she nails it, she nails it. Nicky Katt hasn’t gotten as much traction, which I think is a shame. He’s always a great villain; there’s something in his face that says so and I admire anyone who gives off their own weird vibe so effortlessly.


David: Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, a film that’s emblematic of a nihilistic strain in 1970s cinema (countered by teleological Star Wars), also premiered in your pet year, and your observation that Travis Bickle “stands out by choice” is apt. Slavoj Zizek thinks Bickle, in pulling the trigger on himself literally and figuratively after the brothel massacre (a scene you highlight in the book), acts out the Lacanian mirror stage, signifying his basic realization that he also is part of the city’s scum. However, despite his hypocrisy and racism, isn’t Travis somewhat admirable in trying to “rescue” Iris? And isn’t he sympathetic in that he, like Shakespeare’s Lear, piteously can’t relate to females, and in his being a confused societal casualty exploited by the world’s Palatines? Are this film and the decade quintessentially linked? And have you seen this generation’s Taxi Driver: Nightcrawler?

Bonus point for Zizek reference. I instantly approved of my niece’s boyfriend based solely on the fact that he could talk to me about Zizek for ten minutes. Actually, I have a theory that Zizek is not one guy, but a collective of a dozen or so people all writing under the one pseudonym. He publishes on too many subjects too much too widely too quickly – and hey, for me to say that is really saying something because I’m a nightmare of proliferation according to anybody who ever went to grad school with me.

I haven’t seen Nightcrawler. My watch list is even more out of control than my listen list, and the listen list current has eighty-seven bullets on it. But your questions about my seeming lack of sympathy for Travis Bickle are pretty leading. You tipped me off with the scare quotes around “rescue.” I want to ask: what is rescue? To save someone from harm? To “save” is a tricky deliverable to evaluate; I know that as a high school teacher. I prefer something closer to tikkun olam, the idea that good deeds repair the world. Bickle himself does not appear to be invested in any notion of repair, even of the chauvinistic white knight variety. Also, I think it would do far more harm than good if we were to extend sympathy to everyone we might classify as “piteously can’t relate to females.” But Taxi Driver is part of the nihilistic strain in 1970s movies, as you say, and I have an endless sympathy for that as a human predicament.


David: Even Rush and their 2112 album get retrospeculated. Rush used to be my favorite band long ago – but no songs about sex? WTF? Their former Ayn Rand association being considered an unforgivable sin does bug me, and, though the uptight, prickly prig would snub me as a shoegazing decadent, I think Rand herself is often misestimated and the popular total denial of her worth as a philosophical writer sucks. (There is honey among the bees.) Regardless, not only was Neil Peart’s interest really Objectivism-lite, but a lot of Rush songs contradict Objectivist tenets. Despite your basic disdain for Rand, you give credit where you think it’s due in this passage about 2112‘s birth:

The band had released far too many concept tracks and nothing approaching commercial blockbuster viability, but they convinced [Mercury Records] to give them one last chance. Rather than deliver the mainstream album they had promised, Rush decided to double down on the things they loved and somehow it all gelled together perfectly in the nick of time. Thusly, 2112 was born through a basic unwillingness to follow the instructions of corporate overlords. It is the same feeling that threads throughout Ayn Rand’s work and in particular adheres closely to the plot of Anthem.

For me, Rush’s prime was from Permanent Waves to Roll the Bones, so I don’t really like 2112, but your analysis of the album is great. Why do you consider it to be “Rush’s greatest work?” And why do you think Peart is “a self-righteous jackass?”

Megan: Roll the Bones is a great album, and “Roll the Bones” is unquestionably more stable, more timeless philosophical ground than any of the lyrics on 2112. But Roll the Bones didn’t come out in 1976, so you see my problem. If I’m going to make substantial meaning out of every major album in any given year, there’s going to be a lot of bullshit transitions imparting a certain profundity to those subjects. I like the way 2112 hangs together as a concept and a complete story. I like that it’s so clearly adapted from a short novel and that it so substantially rewrites the ending of that novel. I don’t think it’s “Rush’s greatest work,” but I sure did say that in the book. Now you’re on to me – again. As well you already know, it’s never safe to assume that my entire narration is reliable, even where it hangs its hat on the factual or actual. A fat historical analysis like 1976 requires a certain quantity of pompous lead-ins, of which the Rush pronouncement is indeed one. I’m like Odysseus; tie me up, because I’ll say anything when the sirens are in striking distance.


David: Aside from being an iconic percussionist, Neil Peart is a motorcycle enthusiast and author of some thoughtful motorcycle travelogues, which provides me with this kickass segue to one of the book‘s lovely motorcycle passages, which rings like something out of Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels:

The aerometry, the experience of air pressure when riding a motorcycle is the thing about the experience that makes it unlike any other thing you can do. We forget that we live constantly submerged in atoms, because most of those particles are invisible. When I’m driving a bike, those tiny pieces gather themselves into a wall, and I can tell the difference between forty and eighty by the amount of force that ghost substance applies to my breastplate.

Your exuberance for being “the lucky bastard sitting on that iron horse” (as you put it in Only Ride) is almost infectious enough to convince me to helmet up. Please tell us how you decided to break your youthful promise to your mother and hit the slab as a “flesh and steel android creature.”

Megan: Thank you! Yes, I very much enjoy Peart’s thoughts on motorcycles. He beats the pants off Robert Pirsig, though that’s a low bar to set. When I was growing up in Chicago, public transportation was enough. In Baton Rouge, I just mooched rides everywhere for a couple of years. Once I settled in Atlanta, where public transport sucks and most people move more slowly than I want to, some form of wheels became a necessity. Picking a bike over a car was super easy; my early negative experiences with cars appear in 1976 also. Breaking the promise to my mother that I’d never drive a bike was just gravy. Hey, promises to one’s parents are made to be broken. That’s evolution. Like it is for Peart, the motorcycle has long been my best stab at religion.

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David: ZZ Top gets great praise in 1976. I love that those tres hombres can jam about “tube snakes” and “pearl necklaces,” and then belt out something as tender as “Rough Boy.” Those guys are certainly dyed-in-the-beard horndogs, “just cars and pussy,” as you put it, and such straightforwardness is appreciated:

Whatever his personal political convictions, Billy Gibbons sticks to the script at a ZZ Top show. It’s just cars and pussy…If it’s any more serious than that, then shut the hell up. I went to fucking graduate school, you know, so I do comprehend completely how the personal is necessarily also the political, but I just do not believe that rock and roll must be personal. Sometimes the tighter you rock, the emptier you get, and with a full head like mine, sometimes that’s a blessing.

Right on! I love Jello Biafra, The Clash, the Minutemen and Midnight Oil, but I prefer politics-free music, cringing with Johnny Ramone at Joey Ramone’s politicism and cheering Kurt Cobain’s stated hope “to come across more personal than political.” What do you mean by “the personal is necessarily also the political?” (Isn’t dictatorship the ultimate personal politics?) How did you come to love ZZ Top?

Megan: Johnny Ramone voted for Nixon and was a lifelong NRA supporter. Nirvana played many benefit concerts that supported fundraising and local ballot initiatives against rape and homophobia. Kurt Cobain’s humanitarian politics were constantly on display, as well as his more ambivalent anti-corporate stance. “Cars and pussy” is a matter of distancing. I’m sure Billy Gibbons has a lot of deep thoughts on numerous subjects. But the key phrase from the passage you excerpt is really “sticks to the script.” Political bands, a la Tom Morello, just for example, have one kind of script. Apolitical bands have a different script. This goes back to what I said about Gore Vidal earlier; there’s a kind of acting involved, whether you want to keep to alleged lowly topics like hotrods or you want to talk about alleged elevated topics like an AIDS epidemic.

I don’t remember how I came to love ZZ Top. I was born in 1981, so probably I first encountered them through MTV’s music videos. Also, not to let your parenthetical question slip by: this is rhetorical sleight of hand accomplished by a small change in syntax. I don’t know what the hell “personal politics” is. I guess if one person only cares about himself and that person is in charge, for example Donald Trump, that’s a personal politics that is also a dictatorship. But I said, “the personal is necessarily the political,” which simply means that the things I do every day have a wider impact on the world that I should perhaps take time to consider. For example, if as a teacher I decide I am bored with teaching subject-verb agreement every year and I want to stop teaching it, then in a generation, there will be several hundred fewer people who achieve subject-verb agreement. There might be consequences if subject-verb agreement is no longer a thing, so I should think about how my selfish avoidance of the topic may have wider negative results.


David: Billy Gibbons was two-hand tapping on the guitar strings before Eddie Van Halen popularized it, which reminds me to ask: Do you dig Van Halen, ZZ Top’s fellow cock-rockers? If so: Roth or Hagar? (I swing both ways.)

Megan: Under no circumstances would I put Van Halen in the same category as ZZ Top. The three guys that signed ZZ Top’s first recording contract in 1970 are the same three guys who have toured continuously as ZZ Top for nearly forty years. I don’t care whatsoever about Roth versus Hagar; the whole feud is ruinous and sets a bad example for younger bands. Eddie Van Halen is a very talented guitarist, but Billy Gibbons just smokes him. I prefer blues and slide, sorry. Gene Simmons of KISS actually produced Van Halen’s demo in 1976, so I had the chance to talk about the band extensively, but I passed.


David: A fascinating passage in 1976 reveals an unflattering assessment of Marilyn Monroe:

The other day, I found myself embroiled in an argument with my father-in-law concerning the intellectual abilities of Marilyn Monroe. He said she was above average in the smarts department and I said she probably wasn’t. At first, his main warrant for this absurd claim was that we should take a look at her husband because Arthur Miller wouldn’t marry a dummy.

Though I’m a Garbolator rather than a Monroebot, I think both underestimation and overestimation of Marilyn are bad. Sure, Saul Bellow said she “conduct[ed] herself like a philosopher,” but undermining terms such as “childlike sex goddess” (Gloria Steinem), “child-girl” (Norman Mailer), “beautiful child” (Capote) and even “baby whore” (Pauline Kael) have been dominant since her demise. Not that Marilyn was a deferred Atwood or Streep, but I trust Sarah Churchwell when she calls her “a greater Gatsby” and pierces the Dumb Blonde perception: “The biggest myth is that she was dumb. The second is that she was fragile. The third is that she couldn’t act.” Contrarily, you perceptively ask: “[I]f she was the total package and couldn’t maintain, what chance do the rest of us schmucks have?” This happens to echo Steinem on Marilyn: “How dare she be just as vulnerable and unconfident as I felt?” Basically, Marilyn offends you for not taking advantage of her advantage:

So if I give her the benefit of the doubt, I’m trapped with a version of history where a woman who was empowered by both her body and her mind could’ve had all the success of which she dreamed so ambitiously, but instead allowed herself to be subjugated to the position of sex symbol until coping with the emptiness inside herself required so many drugs that she torched her own rise to stardom and died in the weakest way at the least opportune moment…I’d rather believe she was a little too dumb to handle it and she just lost control over her own trajectory. I don’t want to believe that Marilyn Monroe was a picture of the consummate professional, full of intellect and common sense, who nevertheless cracked.

Might both “greater Gatsby” and Dumb Blonde be true? As for Marilyn’s (questionable) suicide, Sexton and Plath also killed themselves, so were they “too dumb” to deal?

Megan: I really like Churchwell’s metatextual projects, and though I ultimately didn’t read most of her book on Marilyn Monroe, the way she went at the subject – the nature of apocrypha itself – was very inspirational to me when I was waist-deep in Warhol research. Monroe died long before I was born, so all I ever have to work with will be under or overestimation, even out of the mouths of people who did actually know her. But I enjoy the second-handedness of most information, the way it mutates over time. We’re left with a kind of Pascal’s wager, where I prefer to gamble that she was sort of dumb so that I don’t live in fear of the implications for myself. Because I’m not dumb.

Nor do I think Plath or Sexton were dumb. I admire Sexton’s work particularly. You might argue that they were rather too smart to deal, not too dumb. That’s a perk of being a writer instead of an actor: you’re writing your own history in your own words. There is a cornucopia of archival material for both writers to convey with constancy and consistency how they felt about life, whereas there is comparatively little material directly out of Monroe’s own mouth, and she is not as articulate as those two writers. The chapter on Monroe doesn’t argue that you’d simply have to be dumb to kill yourself. There are some suicides that I would condone, though they tend to be more in the line of euthanization for physical pain than solely for emotional suffering, for example Hunter Thompson’s suicide.

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David: In Making Tracks Debbie Harry said that she “always thought [she] was Marilyn Monroe’s kid.” Even dubbed the “punk Marilyn” (Mick Rock saw more Marilyn than punk), Debbie brought “the whole Hollywood/Marilyn sensibility to [rock],” according to Chris Stein (the Lindsay Buckingham to her Stevie Nicks), and she wanted to be “a mysterious figure that’ll never be able to be truly defined,” echoing Marilyn’s stated desire “to stay just in the fantasy of Everyman.” 1976 presents a fundamental contrast between Marilyn and Debbie: the latter is “in charge of herself” and “campily capitaliz[ing] on her own sex appeal to drive [Blondie’s] image into record sales,” has “actual brains” and excels at puckish duping of fawning males. Later in life Debbie stated the obvious: “Certainly, 50% of my success is based on my looks, maybe more, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow.” Well, duh. As Janet Radcliffe Richards wrote, “Beauty is not a matter of what you are, it is a matter of what you look like.” Might physical beauty be its own sort of genius, as Wilde said? Isn’t love of foxiness more than acumen understandable?

Megan: I’ve wanted to talk about Monroe and Harry side by side since the Warhol book, where I could not find a way to do it to my own satisfaction. So much of that chapter of 1976 is a kind of deleted scene from that other project. In fact, the surplus of thoughts and residual understandings I had during that Warhol project in some sense made 1976 easy pickings among all the other years I could have chosen. It’s no secret that I’m working on a book about Bruce Springsteen right now, and in many ways these books are three of a kind, though they are in no way a proper trilogy.

But you asked me about physical beauty. Warhol, having none himself, sought ceaselessly to collect and then reproduce the foxiness he found in others. Where 1976 openly discusses physical beauty, it’s often as an absence, for example in the chapter on Richard Avedon’s political portraits. I understand that many people think of Springsteen as super hot, but I’m not one of them, and most of those people would likely agree with me anyway that his unusual voice has an ugliness that is the real seat of his rise to celebrity. It’s easy to agree with Wilde because physical beauty on a natural level can be a straightforwardly evolutionary prospect. I also admire people working in fashion, photography, or other arts fields where one is expected to be gorgeous, for the upkeep that maintaining gorgeousness obviously requires – foxiness as a kind of acumen. It’s a skill set, and I do love drag queens. But then eating disorders, expensive cosmetic surgery, and so on. I get through life mainly by displaying acumen, but I’d be foolish and not very feminist to disapprove of Debbie Harry’s good looks or how she used them.


David: Finally we come to the genius Lester Bangs: the virtuoso of disgust, rock ‘n’ roll’s John Ruskin. 1976 brings up his controversial Blondie book, which Chris Stein called simultaneous “condemnation and affection” and you describe as an “angry misogynist rant.” Here’s your stab at Bangs’ underlying psychology:

It was supposed to be an authorized biography, but ended up like an ex-boyfriend’s crazed public service announcement about the bitch that dumped him…He was jilted to discover that [Debbie Harry] was her own boss, and in misconstruing the emotive capacities of her singing as earnest and serious, he was shamed by the sudden realization that she had a tricky sense of humor…He fell for the joke! She was therefore smarter than him and he was threatened.

But Bangs was too smart to fear smart women. Rather, he perceived a vampiric, blues-anemic Blondie, coldly embodied in the glib, irony-clad lead vocalist so unlike “flesh and blood” Patti Smith. This statement of yours really strikes me: “Debbie Harry is smiling at you, only for you to understand a moment later that she’s actually laughing at you.” Well, isn’t that akin to Roger Waters, hot in his hypocrite-socialist narcissism, spitting at his own fan? A superior mind deserves respect, but someone laughing at you? Fuck that. Besides, Bangs hated everything that was out at the time (Rod Stewart also got skewered) – and he was smarter than Debbie. Isn’t divergent but well-written criticism just fun to read? Shouldn’t celebrities’ hearts be hardier than glass to endure sharp-penned Lesters? And doesn’t affection often verge on condemnation?

Megan: I love this question because, I swear to you, every person I’ve ever met who’s even heard of Lester Bangs instantly talks to me from the perspective of being a Bangs apologist. Look, I think he wrote many excellent essays (especially on Lou Reed and Patti Smith) and I even agree with some of his more marginal negative reviews. But he was also such an unthinking asshole who could be put on tilt pretty easily and often unproductively, and then there’s the drugs. Yes, divergent but well-written criticism is super fun to read. And yes, I believe that affection not only often but always verges on condemnation. If those two things are untrue, a lot of what I’ve published is going into the trash bin and even my hypocrisy has limits. There’s a chapter in 1976 where I expound on this belief concerning my opinion of Raymond Carver. These are cautionary tales to me personally; 1976 takes no position on whether Harry herself should have been sad, flattered or pissed about Bangs’ book. For most people, Lester Bangs just didn’t make it onto the reading list. I may be taking him down a peg in the book, but hey, he made the cut. Even Van Halen didn’t make the cut.


David: Debbie Harry once likened her persona to “a wizard’s screen,” and, thanks to Toto, we know to question such screens. In your work you wax ironic but seem to omit metaphysical/emotional blues, let alone existential terror, and, related to Rush avoiding songs about sex, I don’t think you’ve ever spieled about, say, playing on your phrase about ZZ Top, motorcycles and pussy. Your libido-perking gush on Joan Jett is a whet that could’ve been wetter: “She was a fucking cherry bomb of kid. Hello, daddy! Tons of girls, perhaps all girls, feel these feels. We run around in the dark, human and wild, the same as boys.” Call me perv, but I want to feel more of those feels. Do you consciously avoid sexual confessionalism, or is Melville’s Ishmael right that “wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable?” Might a future book reveal a Pascalian shiver at indifferent outer space, spill some tears, skinnydip?

Megan: The book emits existential laughter, not terror. I am a human at peace with the human predicament. But I do think 1976 is very blues-based; it’s a deliberate echo of the gonzo free-styling and the uppity hippie indignation of days of yore, regularly shot through with the anthemic power chords of youthful rebellion. Did you read the letter to my last surviving grandparent in there? Did you read the three pages devoted to Halston’s cologne? The passage about peeing in public? I know you loved the motorcycling parts. That is all some very poignant shit, is it not? The sex is in there, but the explicit stuff you’re after has long faded from my writing.

Here’s an exclusive: I’ve never skinny dipped and I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. It can’t be better than doing seventy on a bike with a monsoon pelting your chest. Yes, I do occasionally spill tears (see that letter to my grandpa in the November chapter), though not as often as most people think I should. I cry more often at car commercials than I do at funerals, because one might be art and the other is just death. When I look at outer space, I don’t see indifference; I see infinity and possibility. Look, I do consciously avoid what you’re calling sexual confessionalism, because I make a living as a public school teacher and there is a ridiculous amount of stuff that passes for “moral turpitude” these days. My readership includes some teenagers now, so I go easy on the drug references, too. Have you noticed me even cutting way back on the cursing? Although that is a major fucking bummer. I have also been in a monogamous marriage to my lovely wife, Mindy, for more than a decade – which is to say that our sex life or my fantasy life is no one’s business anymore but Mindy’s.

To return to a previous topic, the focal point of my foxiness is acumen. As a writer and a person, I have been out of the closet as a queer for nearly twenty years. My very existence as such is a public service and one that I am gleefully honored to provide. I don’t think you’re a perv; I just think you’re being a particular type of man at this moment. More on this on your Joan Jett question immediately following…


David: Continuing with cherry bomb Joan Jett, here’s quite a provocative line from the book: “Asking a girl to play guitar is a lot like asking a horse to talk.” More gold:

To be a girl on the boys’ stage, to be playing their instruments and making their noises, and to do it with the same technical proficiency and charisma with which they do it, is vulgar…Asking a girl to play guitar is a lot like asking a horse to talk…Maybe Planet of the Apes is a better metaphor, because the horse that could talk was still confined to his stable, whereas the girl who could play guitar was free, independent. Something can only be vulgar if it is also at least somewhat mesmerizing, and inside that feeling of enthrallment is a quick little drop-off into a pit of willing subjection. The damn dirty apes are running the show. Joan Jett is a king.

You also point out the dearth of recognized female guitar giants and cite Jett’s inclusion on Rolling Stone’s male-majority Top 100 Guitarists list. Why is guitar godhood so testicular? Is it just a fish/bicycle situation? Also, if you had your own rock band, what would be its name?

Megan: I’m super glad you quoted this whole passage and not just the line, because the line alone is likely going down in history as one of the most offensive things I’ll ever write. Guitar godhood is not the only thing that’s so testicular. Fish do not ride bicycles; there is no reason a woman can’t play guitar as well as a man. A lot of life is male-majority best-of lists. In 1977, the Runaways released the Live in Japan album, and there’s a track on there that I think about all the time: “I Wanna Be Where the Boys Are.” The song was written for them by their manager, Kim Fowley, and his seventeen years younger girlfriend, Roni Lee. Lee also performed the song in another more short-lived Fowley band, Venus and the Razorblades. Joan Jett is one of the few women who are (now) where they boys are. She’s an inspiration. I want to get into that space, coasting on enough borrowed privilege to pull the next one up. This is related to Zizek’s musings on Antigone, right? Just knock on the door they told you to knock on, and claim what they tell you is yours if you claim it.

When I parrot some of the most antifeminist rhetoric about her, it’s because I’m in search of strategies for defeating it. There’s an irony embedded in there. In many places throughout 1976, I’m doing an at times sickeningly convincing impression of what I called in the December chapter the language of the “standard American male.” 1976 is really my effort to “communicate like a man.” Hilarious, right? There have been mixed receptions to this concept. Some people are misreading the book and assuming I really do harbor the objectionable sentiments of the standard American male. Most people are reading it as a more nuanced type of butch dyke machismo and crediting me with largely the same ugly opinions but from a somewhat more feminist place. That’s alright by me. More people are figuring out the joke now; I hope I haven’t spoiled it by explaining it. Maybe I will send a copy to Zizek, or the collective masquerading as Zizek, and ask for an essay examining to what extent 1976 constitutes a proper pastiche.


David: From the Ramones section of 1976:

The Ramones did not evolve, ever. They personally grew old and gray and sick and cantankerous, but did not condone or experiment with adulthood in the image they presented to their rabid public…This continuous performance of the Ramones as a coadunation of grizzled teenage soul is so unimpeachable, so thoroughly curated, so perfectly glossy, that I even feel a little bad discussing it in the past tense.

There’s a thread of sameness for sure, but their trademark lowbrow songs seem obligatory (brand rather than band) by, say, Halfway to Sanity or Brain Drain, and certainly by Mondo Bizarro, which includes the world-torn, affecting “Poison Heart.” Joey’s vocals certainly evolved over the years, and his deeper, denser voice seemed to coincide with increased lyrical gravity. Your thoughts?

Megan: Obligatory, brand before band, archaic…look at your word choice. You agree with me. The Ramones did not evolve, ever.

David: “If I’m being honest, Tom Petty saved my life.” That’s how you start your digressive spiel on Tom Petty and George Harrison (with particular focus on Petty’s debut album and Harrison’s Thirty Three & 1/3), which also appears as an essay (with slight differences) in PopMatters: “Tom Petty and George Harrison Were Two Sides of the Same Bicentennial Coin.” You also discuss your gastrointenstinal curse of ulcerative colitis (an affliction Marilyn Monroe probably had, very coincidentally). How do Tom, George and GI disease go together, and how was your life was saved by that lead Heartbreaker?

Megan: Tom and George were the best of pals. I have many more words on both of them, but of course had to stay focused on the two albums they happen to have launched in ’76. I’ve got more than one Tom Petty book proposal rejection under my belt, in fact. I think of Tom and George as my personal spirit guides. One of the greatest and longest challenges of my life will be living with ulcerative colitis. There are times when it causes me unimaginable physical pain – the GI tract has its own nervous system, so when I say the pain is unimaginable, I mean it quite literally. I have an exceedingly high pain threshold, and sometimes the pain still just topples me. It’s completely incapacitating, even blinding (again, literally).

During prolonged bouts with this type of pain, I have sometimes considered suicide. My wife, bless her, has pulled me out of that. On the brief occasions where Mindy has not been able to snap me out of it, the music of Tom Petty has been my salvation. That’s it, no fun story to tell, just a statement of faith. Something in that music speaks to me like no other music can, and for that I’m eternally grateful to him and the Heartbreakers. I suppose I could explain it more vividly or emotively, but I find it more valuable to detach from this type of suffering when I’m not directly experiencing it. Otherwise, as they say in Baton Rouge, it haunts you down.

02 February - Perspective-01 cc

David: 1976 is jam-packed with coincidental historical timelines and lightning-quick political analyses that star a vast cast of pols: George Wallace, Jerry Brown, Nixon, Kissinger, Gerald Ford, Carter. In one of my favorite passages, you write “Lord knows all roads through politics lead to a Kennedy,” a rif on an earlier golden line: “Sometimes I get mad about the fact that all roads lead to a Kennedy.” Fuck, if that ain’t the truth! You also admirably admire the admirable Ron Kovic, perhaps America’s most popular wounded warrior and author of 1976’s Born on the Fourth of July. Why/how have Kovic and his autobiography affected you? What do you think of Oliver Stone’s film adaptation? In general, how the hell did you research and cohere all of the historical/political stuff in the book?

Megan: Before we talk about Kovic, I have to give credit where it is due as far as that thought on the Kennedys. That is my really obvious salute to Eileen Myles. My favorite book of hers will always be Not Me. It opens with “An American Poem,” which is for me personally one of the greatest poems ever written. In it, she asserts that she is a Kennedy and then asks whether we shouldn’t all be Kennedys. Just go read the poem. Every line of it feels attached to my personal missions in life, and I just wanted to put a little ghost of Eileen into this book. We have to propagate our species.

OK, Ron Kovic. I haven’t seen the movie, except in pieces in the background in the living room as a kid. Some of my friends are librarians, and so for a long while now, based on the things they have told me, I’ve wanted to write the history of one copy of one book. I just like thinking about a book bouncing from hand to hand, house to house, human to human. There’s an element of chance, but an opportunity for unusual synchronicities, and we make meaning out of the life we’re living regardless of how deliberately we’re living it. Kovic’s book is a memoir, so I figured if I could inject myself as I’d been doing with all the other artifacts of ’76, to do a history of a copy of the book would add a third layer of complexity and also keep the book as a whole more grounded in the lives of regular citizens. So I specifically sought out a used library copy with the seller’s assurance that the library stamps were still on the inside pocket. I had not ever read the book before, and I would say the process of researching the town history of this one copy’s origin affected me more deeply than Kovic’s own narrative. I’ve thought about phoning up those people who checked out this particular copy and asking what they felt about reading it.

As for the totality of the book, my research strategy had grown pretty robust thanks to the work I did on the Warhol book. That was a similar matter of basically: gather a reading list, make a spreadsheet, break it into assignment chunks, read a few things, write something, read a few things, write something. I laid out a spreadsheet with one page for every month in 1976. Then I listed all the dates in each month down the left column and got deep into the internet for a day or two on each month. I filled every date of the entire year with artifacts that were color-coded according to their subject area, like music or the election. Then I tried to find patterns through which to thread a theme for each chapter. Once I selected all my artifacts, it was cut and dried. Soak up all the stuff for one month, then craft all the chunks in the chapter. I’d let it sit for a week, then go back to smooth the transitions between chunks and sprinkle in a healthy additional dose of adjectives or make other voice-related edits. It was written chronologically start to finish. Glad you think it coheres pretty nicely. Thanks.


David: Asher Haig did 1976’s illustrations. His work reminds me slightly of stuff by painters Francis Bacon and Schiele, and even Joseph Schindelman (illustrator of Roald Dahl’s Charlie books). Haig says that he pays special attention to image distribution, the relation of images to each other and to what’s written in each chapter. He’s also an expert in artificial intelligence and psychoanalysis. How did you two hook up for the collaboration? What do you think of his work? Do you have any thoughts on AI?

Megan: Asher is amazing; I feel like I have my own Ralph Steadman. This is such a good story, too. He and I were on rival debate teams in college. Among the debate nerds, he was a minor deity and I was like a little earthbound chaos demon, occasionally knocking down the best-laid plans of my betters. Mostly he wiped the floor with me, as I recall it, and though we were certainly acquaintances who often orbited each other at times of late-night shenanigans, I wouldn’t say we were friends. We had a healthy competition and a mutual respect. At some point, each of us moved to Atlanta.

So Mindy and I are in line at our local liquor store one sunny weekend afternoon, and she was holding too much stuff. A very nice gentleman let her cut in front of him in the line so she could put down the bottles. I only glanced at him briefly in saying thank you, but as soon as I left the store, something clicked. I just felt sure it was Asher, though we hadn’t seen each other in over a decade. So then Facebook, where I discovered that not only was it him, but he does illustration work as something in between a hobby and a job. He was working on illustrating all of Kafka’s aphorisms, which reminded me of how much Asher and I always had in common in our ways of thinking. So then coffee, and I offered him the project, which he was psyched to do. We have a natural language between us, with a lot of comfortable silence. He does beautifully precise, often hilarious work. We’ve already batted around one or two ideas for future collaboration.

Do I have any thoughts on AI? Yeah, sure. I think a lot of intelligence is artificial and I think artifice is a good offensive maneuver.

Cover - Eternal Return PDFC

Illustrations ©Asher Haig