While these giant monuments never came to pass, Wiener visits smaller ones in his new book. He proves an able tour guide for an array of relevant historic sites, from presidential libraries (visiting the Reagan Library as it hosts a “hippie contest”) to Westminster College in Missouri (where Winston Churchill coined “iron curtain” during a 1946 speech).
If not as cleverly written as Sarah Vowell’s comic travelogues, How We Forgot the Cold War has a dry sense of humor. He devotes one chapter to “the Graceland of atomic tourism,” Greenbrier Bunker in West Virginia. It’s a shelter straight out of Dr. Strangelove where D.C. bigwigs would have taken refuge in the event of nuclear attack, complete with a TV studio with a placid backdrop of the Capitol building to reassure post-Armageddon viewers. (“This assumes, of course, that Americans were still watching TV after a nuclear attack.”) Wiener’s wit and deft grasp of geopolitics make for one of the season’s most intriguing historical books.
[ music/bio ]
Marc Blitzstein: His Life,
His Work, His World
Howard Pollack, Oxford University Press, Oct. 3, 648 pp.
A classical-music prodigy born in Philadelphia, composer Marc Blitzstein studied at Curtis and with Arnold Schoenberg in Berlin. But he made his biggest mark in the theater with unconventional projects often based in social causes, like pro-communism musical The Cradle Will Rock and his 1954 English adaptation of the gutter-petri-dish Brecht/Weill musical Threepenny Opera, which made “Mack the Knife” a pop hit for everybody from Bobby Darin to Ella Fitzgerald.
Howard Pollack’s new biography of Blitzstein brings the composer into fascinating focus. He notes early on that many details about Blitzstein’s personal life are lost to history — though his social circle included luminaries like Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Orson Welles — but paints a robust picture of an out gay man of Jewish heritage, devoted to his family. Letters reveal the composer balanced intense work periods with cruising, mostly rough trade. Despite this, he entered into a platonic marriage with Eva Goldbeck, a writer who loved him but may have been on the verge of divorcing him in the months leading up to her death from anorexia in 1936.
At age 37, Blitzstein joined up to fight in WWII and was stationed in London during the Blitz, scoring Allied films. He maintained an active gay sex life in Europe and after his discharge lived with a fellow veteran. In the ’50s, Blitzstein was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he unabashedly admitted his past as a Communist Party member, but bravely refused to name anyone else. As with his biographies of Copland and Gershwin, Pollack distinguishes himself with impeccable research. One criticism: Show factoids belong in an appendix, where they won’t distract from Blitzstein’s story.
[ music/bio ]
New Kids on the Block: Five Brothers and a million sisters
Nikki Van Noy, Touchstone, Oct. 2, 288 pp.
This first “authorized” biography of New Kids on the Block — the late-’80s prototype boy band that has recently managed to reignite its fan-base with highly successful reunion tours — has gender trouble. Of the dozens of interviews Nikki Van Noy conducted with NKOTB fans (aka “Blockheads”), none was with male fans; they were either husbands of Blockhead wives, family members or industry insiders. Female fans, driven to (generally wholesome) sexual frenzy, are referred to as “Donnie girls,” “Jordan girls” and so on. Because NKOTB were stealing all the girls, argues Van Noy, “Boys hated them automatically.”
Hangin’ Tough — NKOTB’s 1988 sophomore album, which contained the hit singles “Please Don’t Go Girl,” “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” and “Hangin’ Tough” — was released when I was 9, and guess what? I’m a boy, and I loved it. The Hangin’ Tough cassette was on heavy rotation in my Walkman. I even owned a New Kids lunch box, which I carried to elementary school every day. I thought they were the coolest guys ever, especially the youngest one, Joey. He was everything I wasn’t: confident, popular and hip in the eyes of the older kids. Van Noy’s refusal to provide a more nuanced account of the group’s male fans, like me, is unfortunate. Her simplistic, gendered categories does a disservice to the NKOTB phenomenon.
Also banished from the narrative are those male Blockheads who loved the group because, just like the girls, NKOTB stimulated their sexual appetites. Considering that New Kid Jon is openly gay (despite his supposed relationship with pop star Tiffany back in the day), it’s a problematic, and unforgivable, oversight that his queerness is glossed over in one sentence. While the other four guys were singing these love songs to girls, Jon was singing them to boys. The real story of NKOTB fandom is much more complicated, and fascinating, than the one told here. A million sisters? Absolutely. But there are at least a thousand brothers, too.
[ music/bio ]
Where the Heart beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists
Kay Larson, The Penguin Press, July 5, 496 pp.
In a story quoted in Kay Larson’s new bio, John Cage recalls an incident from his time spent studying with Arnold Schoenberg. The stern composer asked his class to provide a solution to a particular problem in counterpoint. When Cage offered his solution, Schoenberg asked for another, and another, until Cage ran out — and then asked for the principle underlying all of those problems. It wasn’t until much later that Cage came to the conclusion that the answer was Schoenberg’s question itself.
Famously strident, Arnold Schoenberg is an unlikely candidate for a Zen guru, but it’s absolutely characteristic of Cage to mentally mold him into one. The pioneering avant-garde composer was so attuned to the contemplative and inquisitive aspects of Zen Buddhism that its introduction into his life didn’t so much alter his path as focus it.
In Where the Heart Beats, Larson, former art critic for the Village Voice and New York magazine, traces Cage’s life in view of the Buddhist principles that helped shape it. Throughout, she laces her own writing with Cage’s own koan-like assertions and anecdotes.
The author underwent her own enlightenment while on a trip to Japan, giving her a unique perspective on the Zen aspects of Cage’s peculiar worldview. Far from a spiritual evangelist, however, Larson broadens her frame to encompass the larger art world, which was busily breaking with its own long-held traditions and finding inspiration in those of other cultures. Asian philosophies were as attractive to these mid-20th-century Modernists as were the realities of industrial society and the shock of pure abstraction.
While she stresses the importance of Buddhist writer D.T. Suzuki on Cage’s thinking, Larson recognizes that his constant questioning of received wisdom and his playful cultural omnivorism had already opened his mind to a compositional approach focused on chance and sound. She suggests that his embrace of Zen merely provided the questions which tied together the endless solutions his music suggested.