Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Riders on the Storm

Title: Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and The Doors
Author: John Densmore
Published: 1990
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Number of Pages: 319

Personal Note:
My reading has been slow - even a standstill at times - this summer. With the persistent high temperatures and the large number of fires surrounding the region I live in, filling the area with choking smoke, my body is sluggish and my mind is dumb. I've mostly been listening to music (The Police, the Doors, and the Star Wars Soundtrack from 1977), sharing adventures with the Winchester boys from Supernatural (a show I've watched since it debuted in 2005 on the WB Network - now The CW), and watching Sharp Objects (an HBO Limited Series based on the novel by Gillian Flynn and mostly filmed in my home state).

Late last year when I was planning what I wanted to read this year, I decided I was finally going to read John Densmore's autobiography of his time with the Doors. I had been wanting to read it since I came across the autobiography in a bookstore in Lenox Square Mall, located in Atlanta, in 1992. And I wanted to read other books on the Doors as well. I penciled in No One Here Gets Out Alive (1980), which I read earlier this year; this book: Riders on the Storm (1990) by John Densmore; Light My Fire (1998) by Ray Manzarek (who is now deceased); and The Doors Unhinged (2010) by John Densmore. My local library carried the last two, but the first two I would have to find on my own. After some searching, I came across this book at a thrift store; it was a hardback in perfect condition and I bought it for three dollars. The only marking in it was a name written in red marker on the inside cover: Angie Hecht. The book smelled faintly of patchouli and the smell would waft up to my nose every time I opened the book or turned a page. It was a calming, sensual pleasure that added to my digestion of Densmore's poignant story.

It seems that whoever met Jim Morrison walked away with a different impression: Southern gentleman, prick, poet, brute, charmer, etc.
I lived with Jim for six years on the road and in the recording studio. This book is my truth. It may not be the whole truth, but it's the way I saw it. From the drum stool.
John's story begins in Paris in 1975 when he visits Jim Morrison's grave for the first time. He is so overcome that he begins a letter to his former and now deceased friend in order to understand the madness that existed for the six years the Doors were together. His letter is an attempt at not only understanding the past, but an attempt to build a present and a future as John Densmore, individual, and not as John Densmore, drummer of the Doors.
Densmore fell in love with music at an early age. One of his earliest memories is sitting next to the organ pipes in the balcony of his Catholic Church. He loved the loudness of the organ and how his seat would vibrate with the low notes. His description of music and how it affected him resonated with me:
Music hypnotized me and transported me out of my little suburban bedroom into fantasyland.
In Junior High he joined the school band and learned to play the drums, taking private lessons to quickly become proficient.
I was fortunate to learn the drum instruments separately, so that I had a thorough understanding when I put them all together.
But being in the band wasn't cool. Sports were the thing, and John was not a jock.
Looking back, music was my salvation through those lonely adolescent years, as it would prove to be for years to come.
The final four that would become the Doors came together in 1965. John had met Ray Manczarek (yes, I spelled that right - Ray later changed it to Manzarek), a keyboard player from Chicago, who was in a band with his brothers; reconnected with an old friend, Robby Krieger, a guitar player with flamenco and folk roots; and met Jim Morrison, a mysterious guy and film school buddy of Ray's that was living with him. 

One of my favorite early memories of John's is when Morrison took him to Olivia's for lunch.
Olivia's. A small soul food restaurant at the corner of Ocean Park and Main. A roadside diner that belonged in Biloxi, Mississippi. The place was packed, as usual. The restaurant that Jim later memorialized as the "Soul Kitchen" was full of UCLA film students. It looked like an Amtrak dining car that got stranded at the beach.
Morrison and Densmore ordered and began to eat.
Half an hour later Olivia bellowed, "Lunch is over!" She wore the traditional print apron over a full skirt... Her vibe was warm, but the big black woman whose name was synonymous with soul never let any patrons in at closing time, and she always tried to hustle out the ones who were there.
Her restaurant may be long gone, but the legend lives on in Jim's words...
No matter how much Densmore liked the music the four of them were creating, he couldn't help but be uneasy about Jim's instability. Jim would quote William Blake again and again: "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." These "dark monologues" scared Densmore and, looking back, he states, "Meeting Jim was the death of my innocence."

So music became what Densmore focused on, more than Jim's unpredictable behavior:
My first job was to keep the tempo, not to let anybody rush or drag, but there was a lot of room for all four of us to express our individuality, which seemed to result in a unique group sound. With my jazz, Ray's early classical training and then exposure to blues, Robby's folk and flamenco, and Jim's obsession with old black blues singers, we were slowly forming the Doors' sound.
Eventually, Ray found a Fender Rhodes keyboard bass, so we didn't need a bass player. It completed the sound. Because he played the bass with his left hand and the organ with his right, it forced Ray to play simple bass lines while he concentrated on his right hand playing the organ.
The lack of a real bass player left room for me to fill, and I enjoyed adding percussive comments to Jim's singing.
After playing clubs for awhile, the Doors were finally signed to a small record label, Elektra Records. In 1966, they went into the studio with producer Paul Rothchild to record their first album. What came out is unarguably the best album they released. This opinion is supported by the fact that their first album is also their highest selling album.

Between the years of the recording of their first album and their last, L.A. Woman, Densmore describes the studio process, playing live (something he came to live for), and Jim's excesses which progressively got worse and even hindered the band in the recording process and on the road when touring. He said he had a constant rash on his back and on the backs of his legs from the stress of dealing with Jim. He sometimes wondered if he should quit, wondered if he could deal with Jim over a long period of time.

Robby would have his own misgivings about the band as well:
In retrospect, Robby says that it was at this point - around the end of '67 and beginning of '68 - that he began to dislike Jim intensely, thinking that the band's future was a day-to-day thing.
Success had become its own problem as well. Densmore describes one of the effects of success like this:
We were going into the studio to record and we didn't have enough songs worked out to fill an entire album. There just wasn't enough time to write the songs and digest them like we used to. The Doors had finally gotten a giant business machine going, lawyers and managers, and now it was picking up speed, gaining its own wild momentum. No time for writing songs like in the early days. Success began to feel like a runaway train - and we couldn't slow it down.
But playing live was what it was all about for Densmore. The band loved to get into the groove of a song and let it take them away from themselves. They followed the music.
I enjoyed spurring Ray and Robby on in their solos... When Ray and I locked into a groove, it was unbounded joy. Robby floated on top, and Ray and I were the rhythm section, the bottom.
When it was good, you wanted the groove to go on forever. Don't change to another set of chord progressions, don't go to the next section of the song; just stay right there and ride.
After twenty years, trips around the world, and two marriages, this is still one of the moments I miss the most.
The last chapters of the book is a continuation of John's letter to Jim. He tells Jim everything that has happened to him since Jim's death in Paris in 1971: more albums, writing, acting, two marriages, a child, and a long search for himself, separate from the Doors. The book ends on a positive note:
There is life beyond the Doors. I've been a husband, a father, an actor, a writer, and a politically concerned American.
I now know the reason I stayed in the band through all the insanity was because music had become my new religion. It is a major theme through my life. 
Music is my closest friend, but not my only friend. Through journals, a play, and this book, I've been building an inner life - an inner peak to match the outer one the band had, only this one will take me on through to the other side.

Chapter 11: Tell All the People:
Apparently we were one of the more popular groups in 'Nam... To some, our music meant a longing for back home, a momentary escape valve, and a way to feel connected with what was going on back in the States. To others, we were the dark soundtrack raging in their minds when they were under fire.

What disturbs me today is that rock 'n' roll is being exploited into "battle" music for patriotic war movies. Vietnam was called a rock-'n'-roll war because the soldiers chose to listen to it to help them survive, which is quite different from some of today's film directors (modern-day generals) using rock to drum up patriotic reverie.

Chapter 13: Absolutely Live:
Ray lit a stick of incense that was preset on the organ, an idea we copped from Indian music. It had evolved into a ritual that signaled we were leaving the outside world behind, and the smell put us in a collective mood to play.

Chapter 14: Shaman's Blues:
Writing to Jim Morrison: "You wouldn't believe all the sixties' songs that have been sold for commercials now, let alone the giant deals "artists" are now making for Pepsi or the like. Rock 'n' roll is incorporated now, selling jeans, perfume, and war. We were just ahead of our time!... Seriously, it's a good lesson you taught me about greed. I've been adamantly opposed to the use of any of our songs for commercials ever since."

Chapter 15: Touch Me:
When one gains so much power that others, friends as well as strangers, are afraid to comment on one's excesses, trouble lies ahead.

Chapter 22: When the Music's Over:
Discipline does something for the soul.

Concluding Note:
This book was much, much better than the previous one I read on Jim Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive. Densmore's writing is personal, vulnerable, and strong, all at the same time. If you're looking for a good book to read on the Doors this is the one you should read.

Monday, July 2, 2018

The Complete Essays of Montaigne

Title: The Complete Essays
Author: Michel de Montaigne
Published: 1580/Revised 1582, 1588, 1592, 1595, 1617
Translated by: M.A. Screech, 1987, 1991, 2003
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Number of Pages: 1284 (of which I read 172)

Personal Note:
These essays are the third title on The Well-Educated Mind's Autobiography list and I just can't read them. I gave it a good try, but Montaigne is not for me. I made it through the first twenty-five chapters and part of chapter 26 of Book I and called it.

Montaigne decided to write these essays after he retreated to his estates in Montaigne, seeking a life of leisure.
Montaigne's project of calm study soon went wrong. He fell into an unbalanced melancholy; his spirit galloped off like a runaway horse; his mind, left fallow, produced weeds not grass... So at the outset otium [leisure] brought Montaigne not happy leisure and wisdom but instability. Writing the Essays was, at one period, a successful attempt to exorcize that demon.
He soon decided to write about himself, the only subject he might know better than anyone else... No one in Classical Antiquity had done anything like it... the Essays were... a hunt for truth, personality, and a knowledge of humanity through an exploration of his own reactions to his reading, his travels, his public and his private experience in peace and in Civil War, in health and in sickness.
Sorry Montaigne, but I found your project and your essays about yourself quite boring.

These essays cover a wide range of topics. Of the twenty-five or so that I read they covered sadness, lying, war, religion, emotions, idleness, constancy, and the last two I read were about educating children.

From Chapter 20: To philosophize is to learn how to die:
To practise death is to practise freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.

From Chapter 24: Same design: differing outcomes:
A competent reader can often find in another man's writings perfections other than those which the author knows that he put there, and can endow them with richer senses and meanings.

From Chapter 26: On educating children:
The profit we posses after study is to have become better and wiser...

Concluding Note:
So, I do not like giving up on books, although this didn't use to be the case. Before I began reading the lists from The Well-Educated Mind I gave up quite easily on a book if it didn't immediately grab my attention. But reading from these lists has taught me how to stick with things, even when they are difficult or boring (hey, I made it through Don Quixote and Moby-Dick). Montaigne tried me a little too much to stick with it. As I read, I found the subject matter was something I just couldn't continue with.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Madame Bovary

Title: Madame Bovary; Provincial Ways
Author: Gustave Flaubert
Published: 1857
Translated by: Mildred Marmur, 1964
Publisher: Signet Classics
Number of Pages: 322

Personal Note:
Madame Bovary is the tenth title on The Well-Educated Mind's Novels reading list. I'm not fond of French novels, but I was surprised by my reaction to this novel. I understand its relevance in the nineteenth century and I believe that it has relevance in the twenty-first century. In today's world where people and emotions are easily disposed of by others, because they are searching for the next "high" (a high that has nothing to do with drugs but with feelings), this novel would serve as a good example of the mess that happens when nothing but pleasure is pursued.

I wanted to read the novel in the translation suggested by Susan Wise Bauer in The Well-Educated Mind. That would have been the 1939 translation by Francis Steegmuller. But, my library only had one copy and it was currently checked out and way past its due date: either someone was very late returning it or they were so absorbed in it they forgot to return it or renew it. I had to choose the other copy the library had. By the time I was finished with the novel, the one I wanted to read had been turned back in. Oh well! These are issues that I have to deal with when using the library, but there's just something about reading library books!

Madame Bovary is among the first of the "realist" novels; "realist" meaning it is showing life as it is, with subject matters that deal with common, everyday things. However, in the Foreword, written by Mary McCarthy, she claimed something different:
Madame Bovary is often called the first modern novel, and this is true, not because of any technical innovations Flaubert made but because it is the first novel to deal with what is now called mass culture.
For McCarthy, mass culture included books, mass-produced household items and decorations, printed music, clothing, writing utensils, things of that nature. Indeed, the novel routinely includes these things: Emma Bovary was an expensive person, who lived beyond her husband's income. So the things mentioned above were the focus of her attention, a way for her to get away from the boredom of her life. So, I wonder at McCarthy never mentioning the realism that is found in the novel. A failing on her part, I believe. Her Foreword to the novel could have been better written.

I'm trying to get better at writing summaries; I often neglect this part in my posts because I'm not very good at it. This time, though, I'm not including a summary. That's because I want other readers to read for themselves Emma's story. Her story is as important and as relevant today as it was in the mid-nineteenth century. Find out for yourself how not to ruin your life trying to live up to unreasonable and unrealistic thoughts, ideas, and fantasies.

What I Liked:
I liked Emma's overall story, obviously. Her romantic ideas about how love and marriage should be, and how everyday life should be, and the ways in which she deals with reality not living up to those ideas, is a warning to all. I'm not saying I liked Emma. I am saying that she is an example of what not to do.

What I Didn't Like:
I found Flaubert boring at times. I found his long descriptions of things that I felt were irrelevant to the novel quite trying to read.

This has nothing to do with the novel, but Mary McCarthy's Foreword was another thing I did not like. I found her choice of words just... wrong at times. For example:
As a husband, he [Charles Bovary] is a social handicap to Emma, and his mild deference probably contributes to her downfall; a harsher man might have curbed her extravagances so that she would not have been obliged to commit suicide.
Emma was "obliged to commit suicide"? Really? She wasn't obliged to do it, she chose to do it! She could have made another choice. She could have chosen to admit her mistakes, take the consequences of her past actions, and learn from them. Really Ms. McCarthy? Obliged?

From Part III, Chapter VI:
One must not touch idols; the gilt rubs off on one's hands.

Concluding Note:
This is a novel I want to read again. And definitely in another translation. Perhaps another translation would correct some of the things I found trying to read. So, I'm all for giving Flaubert another chance in order to fully understand Emma and her choices, as well as the actions and choices of others around her.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography

Title: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography
Author: Humphrey Carpenter
Published: 1977
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Number of Pages: 287

Personal Note:
I'm delving into Tolkien's works on Middle-earth and it was suggested that I read his authorized biography by Humphrey Carpenter and The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, both of which my local library carries, before heading off into Middle-earth. I decided to take that advice and I'm happy that I did. This biography is well-written and more importantly, engaging. I'm not a fan of biography, so it must catch and hold my attention for me to continue reading it. 

After finishing this biography and The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, I plan on reading The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion (all of which I have read several times), Unfinished Tales, and the twelve volumes of The Histories of Middle-earth. This will take me years, of course, but I've done some careful planning, so hopefully it will go smooth. I'm contemplating then reading the two volumes of The History of The Hobbit by John Rateliff. Or maybe I should read those after completing The Hobbit. Not sure yet in which order I will read them. 

The book I checked out of the library is titled Tolkien: A Biography (I included the cover of the book I read at the beginning of this post), however, from my research I've found that it is actually called J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. The book was first published in the UK by George Allen & Unwin Publishers, but when Houghton Mifflin Company published the book in the United States, it must have made an error. All new editions I've seen have the full title. It was originally published in 1977 and a second edition followed in 1987.

According to the Author's Note at the beginning, Humphrey Carpenter states:
This book is based upon the letters, diaries, and other papers of the late Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, and upon the reminiscences of his family and friends.
Tolkien himself did not entirely approve of biography. Or rather, he disliked its use as a form of literary criticism. 'One of my strongest opinions,' he once wrote, 'is that investigation of an author's biography is an entirely vain and false approach to his works.'
In writing it I have tried to tell the story of Tolkien's life without attempting any critical judgements of his works of fiction.
Admittedly, a hard thing for a biographer to do, but Carpenter does it well.
I'm not going to summarize the whole book, but in this section I'm going to point out a few things that especially impressed me about Tolkien as I read.

Part I describes a visit that the author made to the home of Professor and Mrs. Tolkien in 1967. He describes the home as ordinary, but the man himself as anything but ordinary. After leading Carpenter to his study, Tolkien launches into a long explanation of why he can only spare the author a few minutes. In a letter, a reader of The Lord of the Rings has pointed out an error to Tolkien and he wants to revise the work so that the edition going to press will be accurate.
He explains it all in great detail, talking about his book not as a work of fiction but as a chronicle of actual events; he seems to see himself not as an author who has made a slight error that must now be corrected or explained away, but as a historian who must cast light on an obscurity in a historical document.
Carpenter becomes nervous when he realizes that he can't hear everything Tolkien is saying.
He has a strange voice, deep but without resonance, entirely English but with some quality in it that I cannot define, as if he had come from another age or civilisation. Yet for much of the time he does not speak clearly... Often his hand comes up and grasps his mouth, which makes it even harder to hear him.
This inability to be understood, not talking plainly, or talking with this hand in front of his mouth is something that Carpenter will refer to more in telling Tolkien's story. Most people in Tolkien's life and most of his students found it hard to understand him, yet they were still drawn to him as a man, a scholar, and an author.

After Tolkien graduated from what we Americans call high school, he went on a walking tour in Switzerland with his brother, some friends, and teachers. It was here that inspiration began for Middle-earth.
Before setting off on the return journey to England, Tolkien bought some picture postcards. Among them was a reproduction of a painting by a German artist, J. Madelener. It is called Der Berggeist, the mountain spirit, and it shows an old man sitting on a rock under a pine tree. He has a white beard and wears a wide-brimmed round hat and a long cloak. He is talking to a white fawn that is nuzzling his upturned hands, and he has a humorous but compassionate expression; there is a glimpse of rocky mountains in the distance. Tolkien preserved this postcard carefully, and long afterwards he wrote on the paper cover in which he kept it: 'Origin of Gandalf.'
Part III of the book begins to talk about Tolkien's inventing of Middle-earth and the stories that make it up. He describes Tolkien's idea that he wasn't so much as inventing Middle-earth as he was 'recording,' writing down those stories as truths, things that had really happened. Carpenter points to one of Tolkien's essays, On Fairy-Stories and a story, called Leaf by Niggle, to support this:
both... suggest that a man may be given by God the gift of recording 'a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.' Certainly while writing The Silmarillion Tolkien believed that he was doing more than inventing a story. He wrote of the tales that make up the book: 'They arose in my mind as "given" things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew. An absorbing, though continually interrupted labour... yet always I had the sense of recording what was already "there," somewhere: not of "inventing."'
Those parts of the book where Carpenter describes how Tolkien came up with, and how he writes his stories of Middle-earth were the best parts of the biography. I found those bits more interesting than the events of his life.

Concluding Note:
My conclusion is that those that suggested reading this authorized biography of Tolkien before reading his works on Middle-earth are right. I learned about Tolkien's writing style; and knowing about the inspiration behind the stories has given me a respect for those stories, has given me a bigger desire to read them. I also want to add that up to this date, with the exception of The Annotated Emma, this is the best book I've read so far this year. I highly recommend this book to all readers, not just those who want to know more about the author of Middle-earth.

In reading Tolkien's works on Middle-earth, I will take breaks, of course. I'm still reading from the Novels list and the Autobiography list from The Well-Educated Mind, and I have other reading interests that will pull me away from time to time. So like I said, years. It will take me years to complete this goal.

Monday, May 14, 2018


Title: Villette
Author: Charlotte Brontë
Published: 1853
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Number of Pages: 622

Personal Note:
I was very interested in reading Villette, Charlotte Brontë's last novel, because I had heard that through her main character, Lucy Snowe, Brontë had finally been able to create a narrator for her inner life. Alas, at the end of the novel, the interesting had fled and I was left with confusion and disappointment. (Disappointment seems to be my thing with the last few novels I've read.) If Lucy Snowe was a mirror of Brontë's inner life, then... well... no wonder her heroines were confused about what made a man a good man.

There is no plot in this novel. Lucy Snowe moves from situation to situation while narrating her own inner thoughts about everything around her, including even inanimate objects, sometimes spending pages and pages on feelings about one object she focuses on.

The novel begins in England and then moves on to the fictional town of Villette, where she boards and teaches at a girl's school. The majority of the novel centers on the years she spends at this school. The end of the novel, which I found to be tediously slow as well as unbelievable because of her decision to accept the attentions of an irascible and misogynistic man, ends with Lucy becoming mistress of her own home. It is implied that she never marries, but because of the subtlety of the language, I'm not sure.

What I Liked:
There were only two things I liked about this novel:
1) The copyright page lists the typeface of the novel: Linotype Granjon; although I must add that the typeface is too serif-y for me.
2) The main character and I share the same first name.

What I Didn't Like:
I was frustrated with this novel for several reasons.
1) No plot.
2) The language used was too subtle to grasp a concrete meaning of Lucy's overall story.
3) I don't like irascible men, but it seems the Brontë women do. I had no respect for the hero of the novel: Paul Emmanuel.
4) Constant frustration came from all the French spoken by the characters. Yes, in the fictional town of Villette French is the primary language, but this is an English novel. It's understood by the reader that French is spoken by the characters and the readers are reading in English. Furthermore, the French is left untranslated by Brontë. If it hadn't been for the translations into English in the End Notes, I would have been even more lost than I was.
5) Because there was so much French, flipping back and forth between story and End Notes became a separate frustration. I miss the days when notes were printed on the foot of the page. I say, Ban End Notes! Bring back Footnotes!

From Volume II, Chapter 27: The Hôtel Crécy:
The longer we live, the more our experience widens; the less prone we are to judge our neighbor's conduct...

From Volume III, Chapter 29: Monsieur's Fête:
Silence is of different kinds, and breathes different meanings...

Concluding Note:
Perhaps if I had been a nineteenth-century young woman, who understood French and liked misogynistic men, I would have liked this novel. Since I am neither of these, I didn't. So the nicest thing I can say about this novel is: don't read it unless you're looking for something to torture yourself with.