This is Alexis Madrigal talking to the Columbia Journalism Review about staying up all night editing the first issue of Longshot:
I slept on Friday night, but didn’t sleep at all Saturday. It’s really easy to stay up because there’s so much to do, the adrenaline is going. But definitely the hours between, say, five and seven late Saturday night were really miserable. Those are the worst hours. That’s also usually when the big hairy pieces are getting edited down, that’s when the heavy lifting is happening, like crunching 2,000 words into a 750 word piece.
Um, yeah (raises hand); that was me.
I turned in a crazy, chimerical, multi-constellational draft that I wrote in a feverish hour-and-a-half after finishing my work day for Wired, just went ahead and sent it in early Friday night because I knew I was going to need a day off on Saturday.
Alexis wrote me on Sunday morning and said that they liked it but they couldn’t give me more than a page. “OK, it’s your piece and me in the Velodrome! She’s gonna get a lot shorter.” I didn’t know what velodrome meant. “Ah, yes, I meant thunderdome.” Alexis was clearly very sleepy.
I offered to help with cutting it down, so I needed a target. Alexis: “About 650. it’s got its own page, and with the layout that’s about all we can squeeze.” Exhale. My original draft had been about 2100 words. The rough cut Madrigal had sent me back knocking out whole sections was 1300–1400. I had to cut it in half again at the sentence level. “It’s all about focusing on the throughline. You’re a brilliant aside writer(see graf on non-odysseus nostos making), but we need tight…lemme know if this kills it 4 you.”
Anyways, as Milhouse says in the Simpsons Radioactive Man/Fallout Boy episode, “we did it. It took seven hours, but we did it. It’s done.”
It even got a new title, “Hero’s Welcome.” And I really liked how it turned out. Not just that I was able to get it squeezed in — it has a completely different quality. It was Homeric and rambling when I wrote it, but it’s enigmatic and Abrahamic now. (If this makes no sense, it will once you read it.)
Anyways, for the sake of posterity and those of you who may be interested, I’ve decided to post my original draft of the story here. Longshot readers will have the chance to compare and contrast to the thing as finished. All typos and malepropisms are original, authentic artifacts of the Carmody writing process.
Nostos: A Story of Exile and Homesickness
Punk rock and comparative philology were both invented in Germany about 150 years apart. This story is about how you go from one to the other in two moves, by way of Istanbul and the Mississippi Delta. First, though, you need to know something about the prehistorical Greece of Homer’s Odyssey.
Most people know that the Odyssey tells the story of the Greek hero Odysseus (in Latin, Ulysses) and his adventures returning from the Trojan War on his way home to Ithaca, the island he ruled with his queen Penelope. Unlike the Iliad, which digresses but has a pretty straightforward narrative, the Odyssey is told mostly through cutaways and flashbacks. It begins in Ithaca, where Odysseus’s son Telemachus is furious at his mother’s suitors, who wait for word of Odysseus’s death while feasting and squandering all of his wealth. When we finally do encounter Odysseus, he’s about nine-tenths of the way home, having been stuck on Calypso’s island for seven years. Most of his famous adventures – with Circe, the Cyclops, the Sirens, etc., are told in flashback, recounted by Odysseus his hosts along the way.
That’s one of the ironic things about Odysseus’s journey: he’s hopeless, half-dead, cursed by the Gods, unnamed, even naked, but everywhere he goes, he’s treated like a king. This is one of the rules of Greek hospitality: any stranger, especially a luckless refugee, was considered holy, under Zeus’s protection, and offered food, shelter, amnesty, and aid in his return home.
In English, “odyssey” has come to mean a long, meandering journey. The Greek word nostos, scattered throughout Homer’s poem, means homecoming, and that’s really what the Odyssey is about. If anything, “nostos” had richer associations for the ancient Greeks than “homecoming” has for us – more like a pilgrimage than meeting up with old friends for beers and a football game. It’s the root of our word “nostalgia,” and had all its connotations of inevitable longing for an impossibility. And Odysseus’s homecoming, with which the poem concludes, was from the outset impossible.
None of the Achaean heroes made their nostos easily. Their greatest fighter Achilles was doomed to die young and live forever in legend, and his death (like Odysseus’s ruse of the Trojan Horse) falls in the interstices between Homer’s two great poems. Their leader Agamemnon, as we learn early in the Odyssey, returned home only to be murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, in revenge for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia. By the time Telemachus starts his search for his father, Agamemnon’s son Orestes has already returned and avenged his father, murdered his mother, been chased by the Furies to Athens and then pardoned in a court led by Athena herself. Telemachus wants the same revenge on the usurpers in his house, but he first has to discover whether his father’s alive.
Odysseus eventually does return, disguised as a beggar; he meets his childhood friend, Eumaeus, who doesn’t recognize him. Once he finds Telemachus – the son who was just an infant when he left for Troy – he sets himself up to take revenge on the suitors occupying his house like John McClane taking on the terrorists in Die Hard. Every single one of them is going to die.
This brings us to the point in Odysseus’s story where it’s no longer his story, but belongs to another refugee, from another war, thousands of years later.
Erich Auerbach was a Jew, born in Berlin, who became a professor of comparative philology in west-central Germany. Philology – literally, the love of the word – may have been the premier human science in Germany in the 19th and early 20th centuries, combining history, linguistics, literature, and philosophy with scrupulous method and often dazzling insights. In the tradition espoused by Wilhelm von Humboldt – who in between writing rich books about language, history, and philosophy, essentially invented the modern university system – language held the key to understanding and reconstructing everything significant in a human society:
[Humboldt] laid down that the character and structure of a language expresses the inner life and knowledge of its speakers, and that languages must differ from one another in the same way and to the same degree as those who use them. Sounds do not become words until a meaning has been put into them, and this meaning embodies the thought of a community. What Humboldt terms the inner form of a language is just that mode of denoting the relations between the parts of a sentence which reflects the manner in which a particular body of men regards the world about them. – Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1911
Auerbach specialized in the Romance languages, i.e., French, Spanish, and especially Italian – he was a brilliant Dante scholar.
Not long after the Nazis came to power, they began expelling Jewish professors from their positions at German universities. This was the beginning of the great diaspora of German-Jewish artists, scholars, and scientists throughout Europe and America. Auerbach, however, went to exile in Istanbul – a city where he knew no one, did not speak the language, and couldn’t get access to the research libraries he was accustomed to.
Alone with only a handful of books, in a city straddling the East and West, where Io leapt over the Bosporus, facing his greatest fear, the real possibility that the monuments of civilization that he’d devoted his life to would be completely and utterly destroyed by bombs and hatred and murder, he turned what he knew of language on himself — his own memories, his own culture, the fragments of text he’d memorized as a schoolboy. He wanted now to reconstitute that world from those words, to keep with him, even if it never would be read by another person, a grand history of the moments in Western literature that revealed epochal shifts in how we understood who we were and the world we lived in. The audacious title of the book he wrote is Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.
Mimesis begins with the Odyssey, at the moment when Odysseus is recognized by Eurycleia, his wet-nurse, who washes his feet and discovers a scar on his thigh from an old boar hunt. This is where Homer, like Proust avant la lettre, launches into his most spectacular digression, a Faulknerian story from Odysseus’s boyhood while he’s on the very threshold of making himself known and wreaking his revenge.
Auerbach marvels at this text – the way memory and the present appear perfectly equal. Everything is shaped and pure, every image clear, the social relationships between the king and his servant warm but sharply defined. She has meaning only through him and the prince, just as the droids R2-D2 and C-Threepio only have meaning through their associations with Luke and Anakin Skywalker. It’s the perfect representation of Aristotlean mimesis – a clear vision of objective reality, brought under literary consideration through a dynamic, dramatic moment, wrought by people whose social status necessarily entails that their actions matter.
In contrast, Auerbach asks us to consider Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Book of Genesis. Where Odysseus’s motives, memories, circumstances, and position in history were clearly defined, everything in Genesis is a mystery. Instead of Homer’s surfeit of detail, we get terse, indeterminate prose. At every moment, Abraham and Isaac’s place in history is uncertain; will Abraham indeed be made a father of nations if he fulfills God’s request to kill his own son? How could that even be possible? But already we’re at the level of commentary, not the text. Every push for detail appears to leave even less behind. Finally, the moment is over, the sacrifice is averted – and neither the reader nor Abraham or Isaac is given even a hint at what the ordeal meant. Indeed, all are faced with the possibility that it may have meant nothing – that God, as he did Job in the whirlwind, would refuse any and all efforts to make his actions mean anything at all beyond the catastrophe of history. All we have is the excess beyond and behind language – the fear and trembling of that dark miracle that we find in the Old Testament, making a very different kind of realism indeed.
Using the most basic of materials under unimaginable stress, Erich Auerbach wrote what may be the greatest book of literary criticism of the century. After the war, it would be published; he would emigrate to the United States, where he eventually would teach at Yale until his death in 1957.
1957 was the only good year of Jerry Lee Lewis’s life. Until then, he’d bounced around from one impoverished family member to another all over the Mississippi Delta, before being expelled from Bible College, putting himself to work as a piano player, and eventually ending up in Memphis, recording for Sun Records with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Johnny Cash. Every song we associate with Lewis now, including his hits “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” were released in 1957. Lewis was 22 years old.
At the end of that year, he married his first cousin’s 13-year-old daughter, Myra Gale Brown. This is when his life began to fall apart. When the news of his marriage broke, a tour of England and Europe was cancelled and he was blacklisted from American TV and radio. He travelled from town to town playing cheap clubs for tiny fees. Meanwhile, Elvis went to the Army, Chuck Berry had gone to prison for transporting a minor across state lines, and Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash. Most black rock and roll artists were still segregated from the mainstream, with exceptions like Ray Charles, who’d alternately gone country, pop, and classical. Rock and roll, the music of juvenile delinquent rebellion that had found its wildest expression in Lewis, was stillborn.
In 1963, Lewis’s contract with Sun expired. A small group of British bands began playing songs inspired by Lewis and his cohort. In 1964, Lewis played a club where one of those bands, The Beatles, had cut their teeth, playing amphetamine-driven rock to wild fans in Hamburg’s red-light district. Now The Beatles owned America, and Lewis was broke. He was backed by a British band calling themselves The Nashville Teens. He put together a setlist with every great piano rock song recorded to date, whether by him or anyone else. And someone wired the mics and recorded it to tape.
Live at the Star Club Hamburg is the first punk rock record, with the possible exception that every early rock record sounds a little like punk rock – the next generation having sought to return the music to its explosive three-chord roots. From the beginning, when you hear a muffled, German-accented announcer yelp “Jerree Lee Lewwiz!” into an overamped mic, you suspect that something unusual is about to happen. When Lewis drags his fingers across the piano and moans “Mmmmmm….” only to have what sounds like the entire crowd scream the opening lyrics to “Mean Woman Blues”: “…I’ve got me a woman, mean as she can be!”, you’re ready for anything to happen.
Rolling Stone has said that Live at the Star Club “is not an album, it’s a crime scene.” Mojo called it an “unbelievably seismic document of rock ‘n’ roll so demonic and primal it can barely keep its stage suit on.” Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote the definitive review ten years ago for All Music Guide:
Words cannot describe — cannot contain — the performance captured on Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, an album that contains the very essence of rock & roll… One of the profound pleasures of this record is hearing the band try to run with Jerry Lee, which is exceeded only by the sheer dementia of the Killer’s performance; he sounds possessed, hitting the keys so hard it sounds like they’ll break, and rocking harder than anybody had before or since. Compared to this, thrash metal sounds tame, the Stooges sound constrained, hardcore punk seems neutered, and the Sex Pistols sound like wimps. Rock & roll is about the fire in the performance, and nothing sounds as fiery as this; nothing hits as hard or sounds as loud, either. It is no stretch to call this the greatest live album ever, nor is it a stretch to call it the greatest rock & roll album ever recorded. Even so, words can’t describe the music here — it truly has to be heard to be believed.
I have to forgive Erlewine that meaningless repetition that “words cannot describe” this music. Like Abraham and Isaac, it exceeds the limits of representation. Like Odysseus, Lewis is the exile without honor who nevertheless finds a home among strangers. Like Auerbach, by returning to every document within his tradition, uprooting them, jointing them, and flinging them across the room to find the lived reality beneath, he makes them his own. And there he is home.