The San Antonio Express-Newsreports today that esteemed Texas historian T.R. Fehrenbach died on Sunday of a congenital heart condition at San Antonio’s Northeast Baptist Hospital. Fehrenbach was 88.
Among Fehrenbach’s more than 20 books, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans was the best known and most widely read. Fehrenbach was also a longtime columnist at the Express-News and a former head of the Texas Historical Commission.
Conventional rock wisdom holds that the road to superstardom is paved with discarded schoolbooks, whiskey bottles and seven-digit hotel bills. The path then twists through addiction, bitterness and—finally—memoirs recounting the untold history. Before VH1’s “Behind The Music” docudramas arrived to warn against the “pitfalls of fame” (chemical dependency and suicidal recklessness, mostly), heavy-metal heroes of the ’80s and ’90s had to live the life to learn its lessons.
Two hard-rock icons recall that journey in recent books: Official Truth, 101 Proof by Rex Brown, bassist of the defunct Arlington metal band Pantera, and Ministry: The Lost Gospels According To Al Jourgensen, by the titular founder of industrial-rock pioneers Ministry.
Both men’s stories begin in ruptured though not broken homes. Brown was born in Graham, Texas in 1964, where his “Daddy Bill” had a job with Texas Electric. When Daddy Bill was diagnosed with cancer in 1971 and died early the next year, Rex found solace in rock and roll. “While listening to music in my bedroom one night, I remember hearing the most fucking amazing sound emerging from my radio … [t]he name of the song was “Tush” and the band was ZZ Top, and when I heard this song, it immediately altered my outlook on everything. I held onto that feeling for dear life.”
A world away from Graham, Al Jourgensen was born in Havana, Cuba in 1958. “My mother was sixteen when she had me,” he writes, “and I have no idea who my father is but I know he didn’t stick around.” His mother married Ed Jourgensen when Al was six, and though the father/stepson relationship had pitfalls, they found a shared interest in watching sports, particularly hockey, “I loved the competitiveness, the action, the violence,” Al says of the game. And then came music. Jourgensen remembers a 1967 Rolling Stones performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” as having “… this raw, primal energy I had never seen before, even in sports, and they were way more transgressive and dangerous than Elvis or the Beatles.”
As both books unfold, Brown and Jourgensen’s careers and lives dovetail in Texas again and again. Brown lives in Arlington between long stints on the road with Pantera, and Jourgensen spent time in Austin, Marble Falls, and elsewhere in Texas before finally settling in El Paso, where he still lives. And both Pantera and Ministry experienced growing pains in the 1980s before bronzing into metal museum pieces. Pantera started off glam when Brown hooked up with sibling co-founders “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott (guitar) and Vinnie Paul Abbott (drums) in high school, and in their early years the band performed in spandex and teased hair. Ministry also abused hairspray and eyeliner in the early ’80s, and Jourgensen adopted a faux British accent for his band’s debut, a major label synthpop album called With Sympathy.
With Pantera’s Cowboys From Hell (1990) and Ministry’s Psalm 69 (1992), each band not only solidified its signature sound, but found an audience as big as the noise they made. The money followed, and though it’s difficult to imagine in today’s frugal musical economy, mid-’90s major-label largess was enough to keep both Brown and Jourgensen awash in enough disposable income to finance not just impractical recording sessions and ballooning drug habits, but extracurriculars like thousand-dollar bar tabs at strip clubs. Fame also afforded these artists an abnormal freedom from consequence; Jourgensen recalls on more than one occasion working an entire deli tray’s worth of contents up his rectum for the sole purpose of disgusting his perceived foes. Such acts become so commonplace that by the fifth recounting of destroyed hotel rooms, intoxicant binges and sexploits, both books begin to read like joyless exercises in repetition, less the stories of a long party than those of slow suicides.
The eventual reveals—Brown is now sober; Jourgensen has kicked hard drugs and “only” drinks—present another complication. In recovery, addicts are urged to “stay in the solution,” avoiding rosy remembrances and the snare of relapse, but the tell-all book demands the opposite. It’s difficult to feel simultaneous empathy for the subject’s struggles with addiction and joy at their tales of excess. The debauchery feeds our appetite for destruction but the meal never satisfies—especially when we know in advance that the pleasure comes from an attempt to mute pain.
Another difficulty—at least in terms of generating readerly sympathy—is the cruelty in some of Brown and Jourgensen’s characterizations. Brown’s book begins with a series of complaints levied at former Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul Abbott, and he revisits this target over and over through the course of 250 pages. Similarly, Jourgensen, who worked with former Ministry bassist Paul Barker for 17 years, expresses nothing but bile for his former collaborator. But even unhappy marriages have bright moments, and the fact that we’re afforded not a single glimpse of better times creates a serious (and obviously intentional) vacuum.
Both books deliver rambling, entertaining and frequently disturbing anecdotes and exaltations that expand on their authors’ iconic mythos. But the gravity these stories might have had (and whatever lessons they could have imparted) are deflated by the very things that hard-living rock memoirs require by design: bile and bluster. Both Brown and Jourgensen should know that dynamics, not volume, matter most.
Today, November 22, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. The white Xs in Dealey Plaza that demarcated the tragedy have recently been paved over, but the event left “a permanent black scar on [Dallas] history that can never be erased,” writes editor David Hale Smith in his introduction to Dallas Noir. “On that day in 1963, Dallas became American noir.”
It’s no coincidence that Dallas Noir, an anthology of short fiction, was published earlier this month. It’s a dark tribute by contemporary authors—including Ben Fountain, Kathleen Kent, and Clay Reynolds—who have deep connections to a city that Hale compares to “a beautiful woman with poison under her fingernails.” The book is divided into three sections titled “Cowboys,” “Rangers” and “Mavericks,” and each story is set in a different Dallas neighborhood. In a review for TheDallas Morning News, Joyce Sàenz Harris addresses those who might think Dallas is too dull for such a literary treatment: “Perhaps you haven’t gotten out much and seen the dark edges of Big D for yourself.” This collection explores those dark edges with stories featuring femme fatales, gangbangers, lonely waitresses and a Civil War reenactment gone wrong.
Austin theater darlings Rude Mechanicals are at it again with Fixing King John, a modern retelling of King John, one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays. Resident Rude Mech playwright Kirk Lynn discusses his touchstones, from Robert Johnson via the White Stripes to the Bard’s love of smut.
What inspired you to start “fixing” some of Shakespeare’s plays?
I was running and I was listening to a White Stripes live album, and they were covering ‘Stop Breaking Down,’ by Robert Johnson, and I started thinking, ‘Would Robert Johnson even recognize this as his music?’ Especially on the live version, not on the album version, the solo is just so aggressive and noisy. I was like, ‘I want to do that.’
The poet Charles Simic said this thing I really feel connected to. He said that writers want to honor the masters of their craft, but they also want to overthrow them and make room for themselves and sort of destroy them.
I thought, ‘I just want to cover something and make it sound like the White Stripes make ‘Stop Breaking Down’ sound: respectful, and clearly in the tradition of blues—and loving the blues—but just annihilating it, too.’
So how did you go about fixing King John?
I went online, downloaded the full text as a text file, and every morning before I would start whatever my bigger project was, I would just do a page or so, turning it into contemporary English and adding curse words. I feel like a reason Shakespeare can sort of smuggle himself into high schools and colleges is because we don’t recognize how foul he is. Shakespeare loves smut.
So, that was the first pass. Then, I abandoned any loyalty to the Shakespearean text and just tried to edit it like I would one of my plays: Cut it down to 10 characters so you could do it. King John goes from 22 down to 10 characters. Then, just smooth out the plot. And then there were some other things. I really wanted to push toward more gender parity, so I gave the female characters more lines.
Is a retelling more difficult to write than an original play?
I don’t think so. In some ways it was easier. Like anything, once you get under the hood, you find these beautiful sections where you’re like ‘Oh my God, this is a goldmine here.’
Is there any contemporary political commentary at work in the play?
Yeah. There’s a lot of talk about these guys just going to war at the drop of a hat; they don’t seem to care about it. There’s a French king, Philip, in our play, who keeps saying, ‘Man, I just don’t fight anymore.’ He lets his son do all the fighting. And he has this fairly beautiful speech on why he doesn’t fight anymore. It has to do with the slaughter of innocent kids. In Shakespeare, they talk about, ‘Man, we lost this duke,’ and they list out the nobles, and in our play they mention the fact that they lost countless people that nobody knows their names. So there’s a lot of talk about the cost of war.
I originally was drafting a few years ago as we were feeling like we were going to get to move out of Iraq and Afghanistan. The ways, especially in Iraq, in which we took civilian life, still ongoing with the drone work… how do we want to count these people? For the most part, it seems like we don’t even want to count them or think about them. There’s no character named Obama or George Bush, but there is meditation on ‘What do wars actually cost?’
Is your method of “fixing” Shakespeare any different from updating Shakespeare for a modern audience, which is a fairly common undertaking?
I think it’s different in that, at a certain point, I just abandon any loyalty to the text. I got to work on it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with some real Shakespearean actors, which was a real kick, and I think the percentage came out about right. There were probably, out of 15, three or four people who thought it was offensive and not a great idea, and I think that’s kind of the sweet spot that I want to hit: 10-12 people think this is beautiful and three people think it’s kind of… If it’s not offensive to anybody, I would have failed. It takes Shakespeare as the starting place, but abandons it eventually. The farther you get into the play, the less it has to do with Shakespeare.
What’s the future hold for Rude Mechs’ “Fixing Shakespeare” series?
Every two years, the Rude Mechs are going to fix a new one, so we’re asking people what they think is the worst Shakespeare so we can fix that one next. We’re messing around with Timon of Athens, which is a fun play.
Another little feature is that once we produce these plays, they’re going to be given away for free. My greatest desire is that high school kids will find them and love them. It’s fun to do them professionally, but it seems like the people who might really appreciate them are the student that I was when I was 17 or 18. I loved Shakespeare, even at that age, but being forced to talk about it as though it’s purely high culture can take all the fun out of it. I guess even undergrads in college could produce it on their own. There are no rights or royalties attached, so they can do whatever they want with it.
We may think we exercise some modicum of control over our lives. But when the maelstrom hits, as Hurricane Katrina does in Tom Zigal’s epic Many Rivers to Cross, we realize the order governing our lives is temporary and paper-thin.
The minute Vietnam vet Hodge Grant and Duval, the ne’er-do-well father of Grant’s grandchildren, jump into a homemade boat to attempt to rescue Grant’s daughter and grandchildren as the waters rise in New Orleans, we realize there are no maps to guide them, or us. The fragile center of their lives, and of life in New Orleans, cannot hold as the chaos of Katrina sweeps the known world from its moorings.
Grant’s daughter and her children wait on their roof to be rescued. Grant and Duval evade law enforcement and marauders as they try to find her house in a world without landmarks. A young woman caught in her floating VW screams for help. Grant ties floating bodies to lampposts so they will be found. Drunks party through the night in a Bourbon Street bar above the flood. An old man poles a raft heavy with bodies as if he’s crossing the river Styx. Gangs loot stores and homes and assault victims in boats, huddled in shelters and on rooftops. Is this the beginning of the end of the world?
The only order remaining is that carved by human connections: acts of generosity and kindness or violence and nihilism. Grant’s son takes part in a jailbreak from the Orleans Parish Prison as rising water threatens to drown men in their cells. He breaks into an apartment to escape prison guards patrolling in boats, only to find three hungry young children whose junkie mother has died in the bathroom. Suddenly, he is no longer on his own.
Opportunities for redemption and salvation offer themselves up at every turn. Sometimes they are accepted; sometimes they are shunned. And the waters keep rising.
Tom Zigal has written an important book. But unlike some important books, it’s also a page-turner. Its characters, and readers, cannot find terra firma.
Now based in Austin, Zigal lived in New Orleans for a few years, and the city grew on him. This is the second book of a New Orleans trilogy in progress. The first novel, The White League, was nested inside a white, racist, elite society that clandestinely controlled New Orleans.
Many Rivers to Cross is largely a book about African-Americans living in New Orleans because, as Zigal told his audience at a reading, “Katrina was a uniquely African-American tragedy.” As such, the African-American characters are the norm, and the only characters indentified by race are those who are not African-American—the inverse of the standard American narrative. Zigal is scrupulous about the dialogue, making sure the language is right. It’s a high-wire act by a white writer, and he makes it all the way across.
Zigal launches this novel into a world spinning out of control. Even with some respite at the end, we leave it understanding that the order of our world is fragile and temporary, and the waters will rise again.
As a kid, journalist/writer Michael Erard was interested in language, but says he could only find dense technical books on the topic. His new project, Schwa Fire, is conceived as the digital magazine about language—”meaty but accessible,” he says—he wishes he’d had access to then.
Schwa Fire targets language geeks, the grammar-obsessed, linguists, poets, spelling enthusiasts, journalists, and anyone who’s curious about the power of language. That’s a growing audience, Erard says, and Schwa Fire‘sdigital-only format will aim to provide quality long-form journalism and audio stories for anyone who writes, reads, listens or speaks.
“Language journalism,” Erard says, “is at the point where sports journalism was before Sports Illustrated came along.”
If anyone’s qualified to get a project like this off the ground, it’s Michael Erard. He’s been writing about language for more than a decade, and his work has been featured in The New York Times, Slate, Science, Wired, and The Texas Observer. He’s the author of two nonfiction books—Um. . . Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean; and Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners—about language.
Schwa Fire is estimated to launch in early 2014. You can check out a sample Schwa Fire story, a trailer for the project, and more information on Schwa Fire‘s Kickstarter campaign page.
Let me tell you a secret. I’ve been to book festivals all across the country, and the Texas Book Festival is my very favorite. It isn’t my favorite because of the 30 minutes I spend in the children’s tent reading to amazing children and their parents over the weekend. It isn’t my favorite because of the mentions I get in Austin’s major news outlets, and it isn’t my favorite because of the publicity I get for my bilingual children’s books, which, along with being a mother and a teacher, are my life’s work. It isn’t my favorite because of the many parties and lunches and fun events organized for authors. It also isn’t my favorite, in case you were wondering, because it’s some sort of free event/trip—publishers no longer provide the funds to authors like me to cover travel, or lodging, and I don’t get paid to participate.
It is my favorite because of the fact that each of the three times I’ve been to the Texas Book Festival, I’ve arrived a day early to participate in one of the most joyful and inspiring pro-literacy programs in the country: The Reading Rock Star Program. The festival brings authors like me into the schools where I can interact with amazing children who are perhaps meeting a published author for the first time. As a Latina writer, I can inspire and touch creative minds with my writing, celebrating literacy in Spanish and English, both languages side by side on the page. I’ve shared my nonfiction picture books honoring Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez and Tito Puente, and my fictional characters: Marisol McDonald, who doesn’t “match,” and Chavela, who finds some magic rainforest chicle and takes a ride across mountains, rivers, and oceans.
The festival does not send authors to speak to the children of privilege, rather to the children of hope—all from Title 1 schools. And the event is about more than just one day—it is about the lead-up to the event. Committed teachers and librarians, who I consider literacy activists, build excitement in the students through creative activities, art and writing projects, guiding them to find their own voices and put their dreams into words. At the end of each Reading Rock Star visit, I have the distinct honor of giving each and every child a copy of one my books (on behalf of the Texas Book Festival), signed in advance and ready to be shared with parents, grandparents and siblings. To own an $18 picture book is a luxury the vast majority of children in the world can’t afford, but the Texas Book Festival makes sure thousands of children do, in Austin and the Rio Grande Valley.
This year I flew out to Austin on Oct. 24, my birthday. The next morning I visited hundreds of reading rock stars, who surprised me with beautifully drawn birthday cards. In rainbow letters, one third-grader wrote, “Art is Smart!” and so it is. And if we are smart, we will challenge the folks at the Texas Book Festival to make it even better, something that can only happen when we have the space and place for all our amazing Latino writers and poets of all places and races. But if we are smart, we will also praise and support and sing out loud the amazing work already being done by the Texas Book Festival for our children and all children, 365 days a year.
Dallas 1963 is devoid of conspiracy theories. It’s not a dry, brittle history text. And you won’t find any single person blamed for JFK’s assassination.
Instead, Observer contributor Bill Minutaglio and Wittliff Collections curator Steven L. Davis have resurrected the political climate that suffused Dallas in advance of Kennedy’s fateful visit, showing how businessmen, religious zealots, political leaders and moneyed tycoons all contributed to a complex atmosphere of intolerance and hate.
His experience working with the archives at Texas State University’s Wittliff Collections certainly gave co-author Davis a home-field advantage in researching the project. “Working in the archives means you know what questions to ask to find the right material,” Davis says. For Davis, much of that material lies in unprocessed primary sources—documents that have yet to be categorized and are therefore not open and accessible to the public. As a result, these primary sources have rarely—if ever—been reported on. “Going into the archives, you’re finding things that no one has ever really looked at,” Davis says. “That’s when you start doing something really exciting and groundbreaking.”
Take, for example, the Mink Coat Mob riot, organized by Republican U.S. Congressman Bruce Alger, which occurred in Dallas just days before Kennedy’s 1960 election. That attack on Lady Bird and Lyndon B. Johnson has long been relegated to a footnote in histories of the Kennedy campaign, but Davis says the event has been under-appreciated as a factor in Kennedy’s election. The attack inspired sympathy from, for instance, Richard Russell, a Democratic senator from Georgia who had refused to support Kennedy and Johnson because of their pro-civil rights plank. After the Mink Coat Mob accosted the Johnsons, however, Russell flew to Texas and stumped for the ticket, helping to bring “reluctant segregationist-minded voters back into the Democratic column,” according to Davis.
Further research into this overlooked event led Davis and Minutaglio to the Nixon presidential papers and recordings housed in California’s Nixon Presidential Library. One recording documents a frustrated Richard Nixon telling a staff member, “Well, we lost Texas in 1960 because of that asshole congressman [Alger] in Dallas.” Davis says the recording makes it clear that Nixon blamed Alger and the Mink Coat Mob incident for his loss, as he’d previously been leading the Texas polls.
“When you find something like this in the archives,” Davis says, “it puts a new light on this historical incident and proves our assertion of how consequential this event turned out to be.”
Minutaglio and Davis bring such historical nuance to light throughout Dallas 1963. The duo will be at Houston’s Brazos Bookstore on Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. and at Austin’s BookPeople on Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. to discuss their collaboration. For an excerpt of Dallas 1963, see the November issue of The Texas Observer.
Pair the talent implied by acceptance into and completion of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with the affirmation of a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Award for 2012 and you get Jennifer duBois. DuBois, who teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University-San Marcos, secured her rising stardom last year with the publication of her first novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes.
The novel chronicles the lives of Middlebury College student Lily Hayes and her family during Lily’s indictment and trial for the murder of her roommate while studying abroad in Argentina.
DuBois’ skill at crafting situation and circumstance delivers deep insight into each character’s internal experience, turning a story that runs the risk of derivative rehashing (duBois has said the tale was inspired by the real-life Amanda Knox debacle) into a memorable novel that blends engaging plot twists with smart social commentary.
Texas is no stranger to presidential politics. We sent LBJ and two Bushes to the White House, with decidely mixed results, and we rightly remain traumatized about the state’s role in taking JFK out. And then there’s Rick Perry’s apparently undiminished (and is “quixotic” too noble a word?) ambition for presidential power, and the tantalizing prospect that would-be usurper Ted Cruz might out-crazy Perry on his far-right flank.
So it’s little surprise that this weekend’s Texas Book Festival — which after all was founded by pre-first lady Laura Bush — will feature a raft of books and authors addressing themselves to the highest office in the land.
SATURDAY, OCT. 26
Begin your political journey with Jonathan Alter and Dan Balz at 10 a.m. in the House Chamber. Alter, bestselling author of The Promise, chronicle’s Barack Obama’s path to reelection in his new The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies. Balz’s Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America offers both a well-researched account of the election and a predictive analysis of the future of American politics.
Next head on over to the CSPAN-2/Book TV Tent for an 11 a.m. discussion with Mark Leibovich, author of This Town and chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine. This Town examines the “media industrial complex” of the ruling class and offers accounts and analyses of Washington’s transformative effect on the politicians who get sucked in. Moderated by journalist and G.W. Bush biographer Robert Draper.
Good news: You don’t have to move an inch to catch the next panel, which begins at noon and features Steven L. Davis and our own Bill Minutaglio. Davis, curator at the Witliff Collections at Texas State University-San Marcos, and Minutaglio, journalism professor at UT-Austin, will discuss the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Their book, Dallas 1963, explores the Big D political forces aligned in opposition to the Kennedy presidency leading up to the assassination, and offers an interesting take on the reasons many Americans still blame the city for JFK’s death.
Don’t give up that seat yet! The 1 p.m. CSPAN-2/Book TV Tent panel features another JFK discussion, this one between Hugh Aynesworth, Allen Childs and Howard Willens. Aynesworth, an investigative reporter who witnessed the assassination, examines the events in his book November 22, 1963: Witness to History. Childs, author of We Were There: Revelations from the Dallas Doctors Who Attended to JFK on November 22, 1963, will offer a medical perspective on the assassination. Finally, Willens, who worked on the Warren Commission Report, will discuss his book, History Will Prove Us Right.
Now go get something to eat.
Return to the CSPAN-2/Book TV Tent for a 3:45 p.m. panel featuring A. Scott Berg, author of Wilson, a detailed biography of Woodrow Wilson. Berg will talk about Wilson’s journey to the White House and his fight to create the League of Nations.
SUNDAY, OCT. 27
At noon, head back over to the CSPAN-2/Book TV tent for a panel on President Obama featuring Richard Wolffe and Dan Balz. Wolffe, a political correspondent for MSNBC who covered the entirety of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, examines the marketing genius behind both Obama victories in The Message: The Reselling of President Obama. Balz will again discuss Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America.