Saturday, February 27, 2010

The rise of the Byronic man?

I was at lunch with my friend Chris yesterday. I explained to him that I'd been led back to reading some Lord Byron, a great literary love from my adolescence.

"You speak of this with such Byrony!" Chris smiled. It was an awesomely bad joke. But I loved the use of "Byron" as a term again, and I almost asked Chris if we should strategize how to define "Byrony" and then start some sort of underground Byron revival. He's a literary reference that we should know. He was the Hemingway before Hemingway, mind you!

I found an old paperback copy of selected letters and poems a few weeks ago, and on top of that I realized just a few days ago that Byron's broader conflict is the same one that Robert Pirsig prophesizes about in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Chris says that every twenty-something worth their salt has to read this book at some point; I heartily agreed!). Both address the dichotomy of the romantic ideal and classical thought (abstract as a conflict, yes, but applicable to almost everything in our daily lives), but the difference is that Pirsig's professor is trying to find a solution to split the difference. Byron never really wanted to do that. Byron believed that assigning a person a distinct personality--adding up all the components of past actions and words and feelings to construct the "known person"--was a recipe for social disaster. Byron admitted that in love, for example, he had not just one personality but dozens. He was consistent perhaps in nothing "except in politics," he proclaimed, and only there because he possessed "indifference to the subject all together." How true. We are so calm about things we have no passion for. And how true that at some point or another we must all feel a bit boxed-in by the way our friends and family or the world more generally has categorized us. "So and so is a NICE guy." What the hell would that even mean anymore?

Now to my point, sorry. Here's the Wiki-definition of the term "Byronic hero":

high level of intelligence and perception
cunning and able to adapt, but suffering from an unnamed crime
a troubled past
sophisticated and educated
self-critical and introspective
mysterious, magnetic and charismatic
power of seduction and sexual attraction
social and sexual dominance
emotional conflicts, bipolar tendencies, or moodiness
a distaste for social institutions and norms
being an exile, an outcast, or an outlaw
"dark" attributes not normally associated with a hero
disrespect of rank and privilege
has seen the world
jaded, world-weary

The Byronic man is smart! He's educated in the classical, knows his stuff. He's figured out how the world works, but he doesn't like it. But instead of doing anything about it, he decides to be "dark," to brood, to embrace his jaded nature as a badge of honor, attracting women and friends with a passive coolness. So yes, if you want a literary benchmark to pull Byron out of the nineteenth century, look first to Hemingway's expatriates!

When I caught up with Lord Byron this week, I felt an old connection to him restored. I like the solemn sweetness of his love poems, classical in their form but laden with layers of life's little doubts and intrigues and, yes, ironies. Second, though, I was astounded to discover that Byron's contradictions reminded me of a lot of youngish (say, ages 20 to 40) men that I've come across. Hell, I've dated a couple of them (one of whom actually told me that we hadn't worked out because I was "one of those people who just can't quite embrace the darkness enough"). Maybe it's because I'm in grad school, in a college town [vacuum of sorts], where people are exceptionally brooding, or often frustrated because they're overeducated and underemployed or underloved. So maybe my personal sample set is off.

But I see see similar patterns in popular culture. It's why there's a Grizzly Bear song currently playing over a Volkswagon commercial, perhaps. The subsect of gravel-voiced/emo/pseudo-pop boy bands has become quite mainstream, eh? Vampire Weekend's new album just debuted at number one. TALK about prententious, lit-imbibed lyrics, although their sound is much more upbeat. The ennui's there, though, the "eff it" attitude. Let's quit our lousy jobs, drive through the night, and hit on some women in Wellfleet. Or let's just sleep on the balcony after class. MGMT, anyone? I saw them open for Sir Paul McCartney. Their most popular song is about moving to Paris, shooting some heroin, knockin' up some models, and, gasp, I mean, "What else can we do? Get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning news?" Peeps, I'm not bashing this music. I love all three of these bands; their stuff is evocative, provocative, and makes me groove. Although I sound like an idiot writing that, particularly if you know me. My point is that this "eff it, I'm smart, I'm jaded, I'm young, I'm gonna do what I want to and have no remorse" sort of sensation is reflected in the music that the hipster-dude type is listening to.

This isn't a gendered thing, either. Plenty of women have this same sort of aura these days. I just think it's interesting to juxtapose the nineteenth-century Byron against a twenty-first century broken-boy Don Juan. You hear women speak of these men all the time, the "I can fix them, they're brooding but lovely" spiel. It's just time we recognize that their ranks are substantial, especially in the twenties and thirties crowds. Am I casting a value judgment? Not exactly. Although I think that anyone hiding in plain sight from reality/practicality/say, the opportunities in the kind of an ass. Sometimes I want to shout (and REALLY so here in Athens on a Friday night): "Skinny jeans, Chucks, and an arm tatoo do NOT make you cool! Can you even speak properly?!"

Byron is immortalized because he wrote beautifully. At least he DID something, although some might argue that his politics and personal finaglings were scandalous enough to write him off as a jerk, not a literary hero of any sorts. Even when his contemporaries disparaged him, though, calling him a wannabe Shakespeare or even Satan incarnate, he shrugged them off with the personality theory. He wasn't one thing, he WAS many. Maybe he was Satan on Mondays.
And all this to say...I dislike the brooding, but I've really latched on to these idea of "several selves." I think sometimes we expect way too much of people because of what we know OF them, when really life often happens in mixed-up ways that make the most consistent of us falter. There are good ways, and bad ways, but for a person I don't think there is "one way."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

We are all made of mix tapes

I stumbled across Rob Sheffield's Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time via my friend Megan, who moved back to Georgia after a stint in Brooklyn. She recommended the book to me because she knows I adore making playlists and that I often speak in lyrics (to the chagrin of many).

But a story also accompanied the recommendation. Apparently she was at a gathering in Brooklyn one night and ended up in a booth with Sheffield--a writer for Rolling Stone and a frequent commentator on MTV and VH1; they had some mutual friends, but she didn't know who the hell he was until he escaped to the bar and she had a minute to inquire. Megan said she was floored by Sheffield's good humor, kindness, and unassuming nature even when those around him lauded his work, made a big deal of him. A skinny, nerdy writer in Brooklyn sipping whiskey in a hole-in-the-wall bar on a Saturday night. But there's so much more going on there, and he's no cliche.

Sheffield's book is organized into short chapters, and each one opens with a playlist--collections of songs, some very random, that date from the early nineties, when he met his wife Renee, to the early two-thousands, after he'd lost her. It's a memoir more than anything, a first-person narrative that uses his stream-of-consciousness and thousands of musical and pop culture references to place us in the center of his twenties. This is a book about love and music, but it's also a book about being young and confused.

I don't fear ruining the plot for anyone. Sheffield informs the reader by the tenth page that his wife died in his arms when she was 31. So for half the book, you know it's coming. This makes the joy of their meet-cute, their courtship, the comfort as they settle into a relationship in a sleepy college town all that much harder to bear. Take away the approaching grief in those first few chapters, though, and what you have also is this brilliant, expressive peek into the tunnel of Sheffield's twenties. I've got to be honest, I related to the lethargy and apathy he began to feel toward school, as he pursued a graduate degree at the University of Virginia and spent years teaching undergrads, all the while feeling painfully underappreciated. We know, because of the career he'd jump into later as a pop culture commentator, that he abandoned the ambiguity and planted himself firmly in a world he was much more passionate about. You don't have to be a graduate student or live in a college town, though, to relate to Sheffield's themes. He describes the dichotomy common among twenty-somethings (at least from what I see)--impatience, constantly at odds with a compulsion to settle into a comfortable existence that asks the world to wait a while. He and his Renee hated their jobs in Charlottesville, for example, but he describes coming to peace with that every weekend--when the sun went down on a Friday night and their cadre of friends came over to listen to grunge music, drink Zima (remember that stuff?!) mixed with Chambourd, and grill burgers.

He was also okay with his tiny apartment, shitty car, and lousy job because he shared it all with this woman who, he tells us, filled the spaces with her beauty, her music, and her exuberance. They met at a bar, bonded over a Big Star tune, and the rest is the history he relays to us. The love in this story is not a fairytale; but it is a lesson in embracing those people who take the time and care to understand you.

I could go on and on about the gloriously-worded anecdotes here. There's a four-page chapter that rolls back to Sheffield's childhood. He describes an afternoon in which his father lovingly sat with him and experimented with The Beatles' "Hey Jude," looping it on a mix tape to make one very long continuous track. A simple joy, and his love of music made clear early on. Once he reached the age his dad was when that happened, he tells us, he realized how important and how generous the moment was. Those of us lucky to have had parents like that, well we know the true meaning behind a memory like this--it gets us through tougher times as adults, recalling those days that our elders devoted to us to make us more nuanced people.

But I digress. The main point I want to make in this little review is that the very nature of Sheffield's memoir makes the argument that there should be no shame in living our lives through soundtracks. Music shuttled him through all the stages of his life--a time of isolation, a time of love, a time of loss. His love for Renee WAS a mix tape--perfect in its imperfections, better for its missteps, powerful for its authority because it always defines a moment in time. "When you put a song on a mix tape," Sheffield writes, "you set it free." The song is no longer confined to its album, or even to its artist. When you squeeze it in between other songs that mean just as much to you, evoke the same emotions, you make it your own. Or you make it for someone else. Or for an occassion. No one over the age of twenty can read this book and NOT be thrown back in time to moments defined by their pre-IPOD playlists. I got a little weepy recalling the afternoons I sat on my mother's blue couch waiting for the radio to play a certain song--probably something I'd be embarrassed to admit to now--so that I could push "Record" and save it for (at least I thought at the time) forever. A boy broke my sixteen-year-old heart once, and I fixed myself by looping several Celine Dion ballads in with some Liz Phair, who my older and wiser sister Joan had just introduced me to. When I was an undergrad in Ruston, Louisiana (a very quiet, small place at night), I used to drive around listening to a CD I made of what I thought were Joni Mitchell's greatest hits. (Most people probably wouldn't agree with me about "Dancin' Clown," by the way.)

Sheffield also makes some important claims for a digital era. He has absolutely no problem with the itunes-i-zation of our shared music culture; in fact, he has faith that despite a click-of-the-button music world, people will always make mix tapes. Now they're playlists emailed late at night, or a CD you pop on in someone's car on a road trip. But it's the same concept, and it's an artform (particularly when the process is as meticulous as his and Renee's was).

This is a book about rock and roll greater than any biography you'll read, or any "Behind the Music" you'll find re-playing at 1am. The point of rock and roll wasn't just rebellion or youth or even artistry. It was a lot about setting music free, and in turn, setting the people who listen to it free. That's why it has changed so much since Elvis shimmied his first shimmy. Here Sheffield describes in detail the evolution of underground grunge rock, a phenomenon that climaxed when Kurt Cobain became a pop culture poster boy. Sheffield and his friends took pride is finding the most obscure of the obscure bands who played in dirty basements, but they also reveled in a shared identiy and a sincere joy when those bands became accessible to mainstream listeners. And this book is about rock and roll because music is not really about who's singing what way on what album or where. It's about how each of us are affected by it--and with who, where, and when.

I couldn't stress a recommendation more.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Dale had already figured it out

Re: my previous post, obviously Dale Hawkins has been on my mind for the past few days following his death last weekend. He received a nice obit write-up in the New York Times [] -- SO good to see the recognition given in a national forum. Dale contributed much to the early rock and roll scene, and I was particularly glad that the Times piece picked up, at least in brief, on his tenure with Checker Records (one of the first labels that placed black and white artists on the same bill during their tours in the 1950s, and they also put him on stage at the Apollo).

I could go on and on here detailing memories and anecdotes alike. I won't do that here, but I did want to mention something I discovered on his website early this morning that blew my mind and then fixed something firmly in my brain.

His website ( has always been managed by a friend of his; its layout is simple and still looks like a fansite you'd find on a search engine in 1996. (I say that with love; this site was obviously put together with care.) In the photos section, Dale (or probably one of his friends as proxy) posted the two snapshots Dave and I sent him following our first visit to his studio back in 2005. One with Dale and Dave, one with Dale and me. And the captions?

"Dale with Lesley-Anne Reed, co-author of an upcoming book on Dale." (Dave's reads the same.)

When I saw that, I had to fight a few tears back. As I've told many of my friends over the past few days, one of my regrets is that I didn't speak with him more once the initial oral history project was over. I wish I'd spoken with him about the prospect of incorporating his life story into a book on southern music--one that would use Dale's journey as a case study to highlight the dynamics of the early rock scene in the South, taking into account issues of race, class (namely southern poverty), and even environment (Dale was always talking about how places looked, particularly the places in his memory). On the drive back over to Georgia this Wednesday, I pretty much decided that Dave and I have got to discuss making this finally happen.

But, see, Dale had already decided it would happen, in a way. I know now that it will. And not ten years from now. Soon!

[LA exits nostalgic mode and prepares to serve lattes.]

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dale Hawkins, 1936-2010

The first time I met Dale, he had a really disgruntled expression set on his face. We'd interrupted what was apparently an impromptu recording session in his tiny Little Rock studio. There was no one else there with Dale that day. Just a bunch of equipment, a crate of empty soda bottles, and the smell of stale carpet. That was his little hovel, and Dave Anderson (my undergrad mentor and one of the finest scholars of southern music I know) and I had ventured to tap into the pysche of a man that rock and roll had seemingly given up on a long, long time ago. The man was in his late sixties. Gone was the neatly greased-up puff hair and slender frame from the above photo. His hair was fright-white, his gut a little round and soft, but his smile was genuine once he talked to us for five minutes and realized we were for real. Famous for his recording of the original "Susie Q" and a brief tenure in the rockabilly scene of the 1950s, Dale was a piney woods native, the cousin of Ronnie Hawkins and, more than anything, a spitfire of a man who struggled all his life to fit in and make quality music.

I began to study him for a History of American Music course at Louisiana Tech University. I wanted to interview him as a "one-hit wonder," and I know that sounds trite now. It was, actually. I was young and naive as a scholar. I wanted to ask of him: What was it like, to be immortalized in one song? Did he feel robbed of a longer career? And hell...well, I realized "real quick-like," as they say, that Dale's career had never ended. He spent forty years trying to overcome that image as a one-hit wonder, and he did succeed. His resume as a producer in the 1960s and 1970s is impressive, and when Dave and I arrived to see him in 2005, Dale was still belting out regularly at shows across the South as well as still writing a lot of music.

I have digital recordings of our time with Dale. About twelve hours of interviews total. Now I know we've got to do more with it than we have. Dave and I did write a nice article about his early career in Shreveport; it ran as an essay in a collected volume--the link is to the right here>>>>

Dale was everything you might imagine the South to represent. He came from nothing but a dirt road and an old radio playing gospel music, really. His family was broken. He was prone to threatening violence in his youth, I think, and I know he enjoyed the bottle a bit too much at one point in his life. But he was also a lot about rising up from all of this. He knew his soul was made of music, if he could just learn to make it work efficiently. He knew that's what he could contribute tothe world, song and rhythm, and when he played his face lit up like a firecracker right before it sparks its brightest. My favorite memory? I snuck up behind him backstage at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, where he was playing a rockabilly revival, and he was so excited to see me that he scooped me up into an almost-painful hug and screamed so loud the stage manager grimaced.

Dale, I'll miss you, man.

Monday, February 15, 2010


So here's the next stop. Maybe I should have written up mini-reviews of the books I've rushed through while traveling (and I mean that in a good way), but for some reason my mind is pushing me to wait and post some massive cumulative thing. Perhaps there are connections I'll be able to make between Malcom Gladwell, John Krakauer, and this one.

Thanks Megan, for this recommendation. You've only known me for a few months, but in one very sharp, very energetic moment you realized that this book reminded you of the conversations we've had about life. I'm kind of surprised no one's steered me to it before. I think of life in the framework of lyrics, probably too much. The most embarrassing fact about me? I have a soundtrack plotted out, for if my life became a movie in some alternate universe. Can you imagine? That's narcissistic. But it imposes order on my thoughts when I need it the most. Every life event--heart soar, heart misstep, frustration, loss, gain--gets assigned a song.

Okay, lots more to come once I settle back down.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Soon in desperate need of...

...recommendations, people. Books. Email me, phone me, "shoot me a text" as they say. I'm days away from finishing my current list.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


I spent last night in Carrollton, Georgia, where my Uncle Jim (younger brother to mom) and Aunt Ann have adopted an uber-modern loft existence. Their home is literally carved out of a refurbished industrial space. There's still a pully on one of the ceilings. Exposed brick, the whole bit. Jim is a careful designer of spaces; he's making it into something Dwell might want for a cover, and the really great thing is that he and Ann are totally into found objects and reused/recycled materials as art. They've streamlined from a larger house, but now all the beauty's in the tiny, personal details of their new place. We had corn chowder and brownies last night--both homemade and delicious. We talked a little bit about life. I love seeing them. Jim understands my early morning coffee demands when I show up bleary-eyed and nonverbal in the kitchen, and Ann laughs at all of my jokes (therefore, I love her if she actually finds me funny, or if she's just humoring me).

Ann passed Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers on to me. I've wanted to read it for quite some time; so thank you, Ann, and I look forward to swapping reviews once I've finished it. I've said it a million times, and now I'll type it once more: books connect people, still get them talking. That's priceless.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

"the sharpest little happinesses"

Those who know me well know that I often speak in abstractions when I'm trying to figure something out. My verbal phrasings are often very awkward. They condense and (I hope, anyway) make a little more sense once I write them down.

Anyway, the other day I was trying to describe a little bit of how I see the world to a friend. I realized that I imagine happiness as a fancy, layered cake of sorts. The whole is important for presentation, but when you slice it and serve it, there are all these amazing smaller components to pick at and savor. I think anyone will rarely HAVE the whole thing, but a piece is lovely. And no two are ever the same, either.

Enough of the food metaphor-ing. I bring this up because I said, in that moment: "I look for the sharpest little happinesses." Yeah, I know, that sounds like an eighth grader composing her first autobiographical essay. And maybe this is all a little bit of eighth grader in me (which is fine...honestly, I was a raging dorkface at that point in my life, but I was sweet and sentimental to no end). What do I mean by this phrase? I mean those moments that I look for in the everyday that keep me going. Surely we all have these little rushes once in awhile. When something that others might not even find very interesting sends a little spark up your spine? Or when the ritual of something comforting finds you in a silent, peaceful sliver of a moment?

My sister Joan also inspired this post. Mother to my lovely new niece, she's been homebound lately, trying to maintain her sanity while managing a household that now includes: a baby who eats every three hours and refuses to sleep for more than one hour, a facetious cat who thinks she's been handed down the job of caring for said baby, and an academic doll of a husband who entertains his daughter by playing recorded TV shows in Arabic. She handles life with grace, my sister. Her facebook update the other day made so much sense. She summed up her life in a few sentences: "I became a social worker. I married an academic. I have a beautiful little girl. Life is good despite the fact that the world is pretty messed up right now."

These are mine, my sharpest little happinesses, at least for now:

--Book reviews.
I've finally come to terms with the fact that it will take me many, many years to read all the things I'd like to. Actually, I know I couldn't possibly live long enough to get anywhere near the end of that stack. Call it bibliophilic fatalism. So I've decided to also devote as much time as I can to knowing many books. I stop by the The New York Times , Slate , and The Wall Street Journal almost every morning. A good book review digs much deeper than summary, and the best make historiographical and cultural connections to relevant and timely matters of the world. A great one leads you down other paths as well. Yesterday, I started reading about ecosystem ecology and ten minutes later had some jazz on. (My roommate wasn't happy about that; I have a bad right ear, so I play music loudly like a really old person.) It was the middle of last year, post-comprehensive exams, that I finally re-introduced myself to the goal of diverse reading. I spent three years buried (, literally, buried, falling asleep on top of and under) in historical monographs--which are solidly researched but oft-lacking in both compelling prose and versatility. But my undergrad advisor Dave Anderson once told me that the answers you're looking for to solve a problem aren't going to be in the literature that's already been written in your field. They're going to be in some hidden corner in a place you don't feel as comfortable, or perhaps on a cereal box. Blogs are amazing venues for book recommendations as well. I've found gems just skimming through friends' entries. This is where the real happiness part comes in. Sharing books is, at least to me, like sharing a meal with people you like. The common experience bonds two people (or four, or twenty) for a few moments or for forever (if the excellence of the material is properly agreed upon).

--My cafe regulars.

I run espresso shots and serve pastries part-time at an adorable bakery here in Athens called Ike & Jane. I took the job to bank some money on the side, of course, and I really didn't expect to get much out of it. Imagine my surprise when the exact opposite happened. I get a hell of a lot out of it. Not only do I work with this glorious little cross-section of Athenians, people I would never have met sequestered in the history department hallways, but I've also learned how insanely, prick-of-a-pin close happiness and suffering really are. The bakery is right next to Athens' main hospital. A good chunk of our business is from their staff as well as the patients and family members who visit them. I've had meaningful conversations with people who are staring illness in the face--conversations about our health care crisis, the wonders and pitfalls of medicine, and, yes, the little happinesses that creep into the day-to-day despite how awful the bigger picture might be. I've never really been interested in the medical profession before this, and while I think my abilities in it will remain in the realm of volunteering and listening, well...there's something. It's added a new dimension to my life that I'm thankful for. I spent A LOT of time in hospitals growing up, dealing with my mother's illness, and I know there's a wisdom in the eyes of folks who've had to confront death and dying, or even just the fear of these things.

There are also regulars at the cafe who broaden my views everyday in other ways. Like Eddie, the cab driver-cum-medical transporter who stops by several times a day just to say hi and see how we're doing. Or the man who orders an apple juice and sits in the corner smiling for hours at a time, just watching (and no, it's not creepy, he's lovely). Mothers who come in and gush about the hopes they have for their kids. Musicians who show up at 6am because they haven't gone to bed yet and caffeine is the only thing that could possibly keep them going. It's a mess, but I'm glad I'm a part of this little slice of Athens. Even if just for a bit.


If you know me, you know I talk about synchronicity all the time. I believe firmly that there's meaning in how we interact with others as well as with places and times in our life. There are moments that seem to be accidental, and I guess if you talk to a statistician, they are. But when those accidents inspire you, connect you to something or someone...priceless. And lately, to add a layer on top of all that, I've been trying to make small gestures everyday towards others--to show that I care, that I'm thinking, that I'm present. I want the people that matter to me to know that they do. Small surprises make me happy, and I think they make most people happy.

--My niece, Eleanor
I get to see her again very soon. She's pictured above in all her sleepy infant glory. The first time I met her, she was two days old and angry at a nurse for changing her diaper. She waved her tiny fists in the air like the queen of some chesnut-haired empire. And she stole my heart, right in that moment. Having her around makes me want to be a better person. Joan sends me picture-messages in the morning of Eleanor waking up. "Good morning, Aunt Lesley," they say, "I love you." God, I love you too, baby, baby girl!
And on a lighter note:
--My dad's voice. If I'm having a stressful day, receiving his phone call is like a tiny haven. There are many things we simply do not agree on (politics, movies, footwear, you name it), but we still talk very easily. To him I am always, always his little girl. And that's shelter.
--Fresh notebook paper. I still write most everything down before I type it up.
--Re-runs of the The Office. Must I elaborate.
--Late nights in my house. Two grad students grade papers, stack books in rows, and try to make sense of life...and eat a lot of ice cream along the way.
--Cooking. But I don't use recipes.
--The Regina Spektor song, "Us." This song is everything I think love is. Please go listen to it right now if you've never heard it. It makes me want to go places, do things, and dream more.
--Looking forward. There are some exciting plans in the works, but more on that later. Can't go jinxing anything, you know.

Monday, February 1, 2010

drive better and read more

Dr. James C. Cobb, prolific historian of the southern way who intimidates the hell out of us grad students when he saunters down our hallway with his cowboy boots and Wrangler jeans on, went jogging this morning only to be struck by a wayward car. So I plead with us all, let's drive better. No one should be injured during fitness hour. Dr. Cobb is fine, was up on his feet already this afternoon, but in honor of him and to counter the absurdity of his day, I urge you to read his blog. "Cobbloviate" has been running strong for years. Cobb's writing is a fine-toothed comb on southern culture, race, and American political life more generally. He calls himself an old man, but he's younger than my dad and hipper than most of us would ever attempt and/or claim to be.

LINK is on the right sidebar here>>>>>>