Oct 012012

I just finished reading The World According To Garp, by John Irving. Again. This book has meant so much to me that I toted it across country to grad school and then, many years later, moved a much more bedraggled paperback copy back to California. I’ve re-read it at least five times. My family has humored me in my love of All Things Related To The World According To Garp (and by extension, John Irving): my sister allowed me to drag her to Exeter Academy to try to find locations, such as the Jenny Fields Infirmary; my family buys me hardback versions of Irving’s new novels (we are purveyors of the paperback and the used book stores); and they have tolerated my discussion of such John Irving deep cuts as Trying To Save Piggy Sneed or the awful The Fourth Hand. When I met Mr. Royale, I was happy to find a paperback copy of Garp among his possessions; if he had not liked the novel, it would have been a deal breaker.

1978’s Garp, initially entitled *Lunacy and Sorrow, is one of those amazing books that everyone should read (don’t try to get out of the 609 page count by watching the 1982 George Roy Hill film starring Robin Williams as Garp. It’s too cute). It is one of my nominations for The Great American Novel. It includes those quintessential American themes: Sex, Violence, Death, Love, Family, Religion (although in this case, through political causes). In fact, I could make a case of Garp also being The Great (Rock ‘n Roll) American Novel: the focus on lust, the contrast of being an outsider with the need to be accepted by a group, a sensitive main character who communicates his feelings about the world through art, the desire and confusion about fame.

Maybe for you, the Great American Novel is Moby Dick. Or The Great Gatsby. Or The Sun Also Rises, The Grapes of Wrath, Look Homeward, Angel, or (another personal contender) Don Delillo‘s Underworld.

But what is The Great American Album? Which album best exemplifies those American themes? When I asked Mr. Royale this question, his first response was Exile On Main Street. But the Rolling Stones? Do you have to be American to have created an American record?

I look forward to your discourse. Typed, double-spaced, with appropriate margins and font size. Consult Strunk and White for further details.


  67 Responses to “Lunacy and Sorrow* and The Great American Album”

  1. The Great American Album needs to be made by a Great American Artist. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds comes to mind, for starters.

  2. 2000 Man

    I agree with Mr. Royale, but I can certainly see the complaint that they’re not American. I can’t tolerate Pet Sounds, though. To me. it’s not even a good American album. Maybe something by The Band or something.

  3. Yes! Once again, when 2000 Man speaks, he speaks for both of us.

  4. If the Last Waltz is disqualified as I suspect it will be, and something by Hank Williams doesn’t fly because it’s country, then I think that Highway 61 or the Ramones would be decent choices.

  5. mockcarr

    Off the top of my head – Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home.

  6. The Band is Canadian, as I’m sure you know. I can’t accept them for the same reasons. Listen, I have my reservations with Pet Sounds, although I really like the Beach Boys (the good, functional Beach Boys, not any of the dysfunctional remains that would follow). Here’s my thinking: according to the supposed themes necessary for The Great American Album, as ladymiss puts it, ” lust, the contrast of being an outsider with the need to be accepted by a group, a sensitive main character who communicates his feelings about the world through art, the desire and confusion about fame,” Pet Sounds totally meets the criteria. I’m just trying to play within the ground rules. I’ve never understood the need to determine The Great American Novel much less this new notion of The Great American Album. If we’re going to do so, however, and if ladymiss’ criteria are valid guidelines, let’s work within them. If the guidelines for what constitutes The Great American Album are different, let’s define them. “Best” American album seems to be a different discussion. I wouldn’t suggest Pet Sounds for that title.

  7. X, Under the Big Black Sun. It’s got family (songs about the death of Exene’s sister), infidelity (said sister died in a car accident with her lover, right?), outsider-y songs (“The Have Nots”), religion (Roman Catholic imagery and guilt everywhere). Etc. Etc.

    I recently finished a more recent candidate for Great American Novel — Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude.

  8. ladymisskirroyale

    I was going to nominate that novel. It’s a book all RTHers should read for it’s music content and for it’s potential status.

  9. ladymisskirroyale

    I truly believe (and I hate arguing this) that a key theme of Americana is violence. The Great American Novels and Great American Films exemplify this tendency, often through “Regeneration Through Violence.” So I think we need to make sure that Great American Album does, too.

    I like “Pet Sounds” better than I like “Exile On Main Street” but where’s the violence of “Pet Sounds”? Sloop John B? That’s a traditional folk song – the Beach Boys didn’t write it. “God Only Knows”? There’s plenty of INFERRED violence (note capitals, John Irving-style) but I think that’s too subtle to represent the TRUE AMERICAN CONDITION. Again, I hate to say this, but are the standard bearers of American music subtle?

    Today, I most likely won’t be able to add much to our discourse due to the fact that my school, like many schools in the country, is highlighting a National Anti-Bullying campaign. But get a look at the slogan: “Stomp Out Bullying” http://www.stompoutbullying.org/blueshirtday2012_v2.php

    Maybe IRONY should be a key theme of Americana….

  10. Is there real violence in the vaunted Exile, or just a few hints of Keef playing with his collection of penknives? Listen, as an American I won’t stand for Exile as our Great American Album. As an American I’m willing to kick someone’s ass over that notion. If violence also needs to be part of the equation, let’s find a real shit-kicking American album, like something by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Their songs cover all of the criteria.

  11. misterioso

    Good record, but too bad Brian ruined it with all that weirdo stuff. The Loveman should have been given free rein.

  12. misterioso

    I hate to get all Greil Marcusian (really, I hate to, ’cause I don’t much like the guy), but The Basement Tapes. Not the double album, but the entire collection of released and unreleased stuff. Big, sprawling, messy, beautiful.

    Alternate choice, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.

  13. Slim Jade

    A valid question, and one that merits some deep chin-stroking thought. Hold tight, I’m about to get long-winded.

    I do agree with Mr.Royale that “Exile” really puts a cap on it, and many of our Great American Novels were written by Americans who probably still retained a somewhat British accent back in the day (James Fenimore Cooper?). The French Alexis de Toqueville’s “Democracy In America” is a prime example of a foreigner whose comments on our country in the time of Jefferson still hold true and, arguably, hasn’t been topped.

    But, I agree, it needs to be home-grown.

    As for the violence issue, yes, the quintessential American hero/protagonist, from frontier mythology on up, is a killer. Englishman D.H. Lawrence said “there you have the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted”. William Carlos Williams said there was “a great voluptuary born to the American Settlements against the niggardliness of the damning Puritanical tradition; one who by the single logic of his passion, which he rested on the savage life about him, destroyed at its spring that spiritually withering plague. For this he has remained since buried in a mis-colored legend and left for rotten. Far from dead, however, but full of a rich regenerative violence he remains, when his history will be carefully reported, for us who have come to call upon him”.

    In American mythogenesis, the first colonists saw in America an opportunity to regenerate their fortunes, their power, and their spirits; but the means to that regeneration quickly became the means of violence, and that myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience. Our founding fathers were not the bewigged eighteenth-century gentlemen dipping their quills in ink, they were those who (as Faulkner said) “tore violently a nation from the implacable and opulent wilderness”. Think of the Indian fighters, the buffalo killers, the rogues, the adventurers, the whalers, the land-boomers, the explorers, the whiskey priests (this calls to mind “The Basement Tapes” in mood). Our protagonists are our Ahabs, our Leatherstocking, our Daniel Boone’s. The list carries on through our history: from Andrew Jackson to Billy the Kid to John Wayne to Michael Corleone, our quintessential American protagonist is sharpening his blade. Hell, Stagger Lee, for that matter!

    I would argue that this national character is present in even the most docile texts. Walt Whitman, Huck Finn, Gatsby; they all still carry that truly American struggle to set oneself free from the limits one is born to. Our quintessential American story takes its energy from the pursuit of happiness, “a love of physical gratification, the notion of bettering one’s condition, the excitement of competition, the charm of anticipated success” (Tocqueville, again). There is an ingrained conviction that you can always get what you want, and even if you fail, you deserve it anyway. “By any means necessary”.

    The promise of America more often than not, contains a resentment and fear lurking underneath. We Americans feel a certain birthright, and we feel outside of the country, swept in the undertow, and haunted when that promise fails. An American failure, stemming from love or money, always feels like a betrayal of a more huge, shadowy, shared hope.

    In light of this, I nominate “Nebraska”.

    Argue if you will.

  14. If Nebraska’s The Great American Album, then fuck America! I really mean this on a level beyond my personal tastes (lord knows I hate that album).

    I fundamentally disagree with the notion that The Great American Anything has to be ALL about the “dark underbelly” of our stated idealism, etc. The idealism, the hopes, the dreams themselves need to have a place in this album. If we’re gonna go Boss, what’s wrong with Born to Run?

    I need to be brought up, first, by The Great American Album before being let down hard. Letdowns are more satisfying if one is dropped from an exalted place. You really get to feel the letdown. For that reason, beyond the heavy involvement of a bunch of Canadians, I would rule out any version of The Basement Tapes. It’s pretty much all dank, low-key, and messy.

  15. 1. Levon Helm is from Arkansas and arguably the voice most identified with the Band.

    2. Their entire schtick was an obsession with the rural US, from their Civil War reenactors’ costumes and beards to their songs about settin’ on the porch in a rocking chair.

    3. With the exception of the drunken shenanigans of Van Morrison, the Last Waltz is a celebration of American roots rock.

    4. Most importantly, Canada is part of America, (you xenophobe!)

  16. I love the Band as much as anyone around here. I wish I could go with them or Neil Young, but I can’t. My America is the United States of America. I don’t know about you, eh?

  17. 2000 Man

    I like that choice. I’ll probably be on Team X when all is said and done.

  18. 2000 Man

    One American is all the American you need! We send less “American” Americans to the Olympics!

  19. 2000 Man

    Yeah, Nebraska blows. I was thinking maybe The River, but I don’t pay enough attention to Brooce to know if it’s violent enough. I was thinking Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Second Helping might be a good choice.

    Then again, maybe it all boils down to something like someone trying to break through, and ultimately failing on a grand scale, but being beloved by a small group of Americans that can’t tell the difference between just good and great. So I give you The Michael Stanley Band’s Stagepass. A double live album a little late to propel him to the stratosphere, and a country that thought Bob Seger was enough “heartland” for all of us.

    I have that album. It’s one of the few I have for nostalgia’s sake.

  20. hrrundivbakshi

    Guys, guys, guys — seriously, could this award go to any album *other than* “Tres Hombres” by ZZ Top? That album has it all. Let’s review:

    1. Three dudes from Texas, singing about shit that happens in Texas. Texas! (No carping about how they’re not singing about “America”; state-centrism is more American than nation-centrism in America!)

    2. Songs about: workin’ (“Waitin’ for the Bus”), religion (“Jesus Just Left Chicago”, “Have You Heard”), ass-kickin’ (“Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers”), driving aimlessly down the highway (“Precious & Grace”), ridin’ a freight train to nowhere (“Move Me On Down the Line”), and getting dragged behind a pickup truck in a giant steel cage just because it sounded like a good idea when you were drunk (“Master of Sparks”).

    3. Unlike many of the albums proposed thus far, “Tres Hombres” is actually good — Great, even.

    4. The gatefold sleeve is a double-album-wide, hyper-saturated color photo of a huge table full of greasy Mexican food. And Beer.

    I am totally serious. The Great American Album is “Tres Hombres” by ZZ Top.

  21. Happiness Stan

    As a non-American (who has never travelled to America) my American Musical World View is going to be distorted by being squidged through various filters, from the golden age of Hollywood to legends of Woody Guthrie and the blues guys, to the reports we get over here of mad politicians, the wild west of Hollywood and the Byrds and Gram Parsons, and Lou Reed as he was meant to be heard.

    It’s not rock, but Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends” has all of the above themes, and seems quintessentially American as I understand it.

  22. hrrundivbakshi

    Whoops — totally forgot to include the song about the all-American pastime of whoring: “La Grange.”

  23. alexmagic

    Honestly – and I hate giving ammo to his fans given a lot of the overblown bloat around the Cult of Springsteen – I don’t think this conversation can go anywhere meaningful until we tackle Born To Run head on.

  24. alexmagic

    Where would you rate Sign O The Times in the Great American Album discussion, hvb?

  25. And while you’re at answering the Magic Man’s question (and ducking Oats’ summons from last week), how does this album stack up to Jeff Lynne’s contribution to The Great American Album sweepstakes, the Travellin’ Wilburys’ debut?

  26. I was hoping we’d hear you and some others from outside the US. I’m hoping, too, that our old friend Northvancoveman is reading this thread and stewing over my refusal to include the Guess Who’s American Woman.

    It’s a crime that you’ve never been to the US and I’ve never been to England. We’ve got to rectify at least one of those situations and meet up some day.

  27. BTW, my money is on Geo proposing the Grateful Dead’s live Europe 1972 album, or whichever live album it is that he’s been daring me to buy, before Dr John resurfaces with Workingman’s Dead or American Beauty. BigSteve, meanwhile, has already determined that he’s going in another direction. I look forward to hearing from three of our biggest American music lovers.

  28. hrrundivbakshi

    I got summoned? I’ve been neck deep in work shit, I must’ve missed that. Link?

  29. mockcarr

    Hmm. I still think it’s all on there Dylan’s lyric sheet, but maybe the songs aren’t Rock enough.

  30. Dylan was the first guy who came to mind for me – and he still may be the best – but I thought better of nominating any of his classic albums because he didn’t seem like he was ever gunning for anything more than a huge, impressionistic personal statement. I figured this “title” should go to someone who wanted it.

  31. Here you go, HVB:


    Thanks, and I know what you mean about being neck-deep in work shit.

  32. misterioso

    Yes, let is tackle it. And pile on and commit unnecessary roughness on it.

  33. alexmagic

    Time is ELO’s contribution to the Great American Album Sweepstakes.

    It just happens to be about the America of 2095, when we all have robots, which we totally will.

  34. misterioso

    I’m not at all sure about your characterization of the Basement Tapes as “pretty much all dank, low-key, and messy,” but even if so, I would say: as opposed to America?

  35. Meatloaf – “Bat Out of Hell” album.

  36. I think you need to confront the 1-second-answer of Born to Run. I avoided posting this earlier since I just dropped the Bruce entry in the LMS thread. I think it has the criteria covered; it is a very American subject going from youthful escape through conflict to a reckoning with what’s been learned. It’s also got tons of ambition and is kind of big, overblown Hollywood blockbuster of a record.

    All that said, I prefer Highway 61 Revisited or Creedence’s Green River .

  37. America ≠ Texas (no matter what Texans may tell you)

    (there are no Texans here, right?)

  38. Slim Jade

    Would we rule it out as merely a singles collection, or would Elvis’ Sun Sessions count?

  39. cliff sovinsanity

    Stevie Wonder – “Songs In The Key Of Life” would be a good nomination. I’ve got too much of sinus headache to give a song by song justification. In a nutshell we’ve got birth, death and the American way of life.
    “…his truth is marching on”.

  40. ladymisskirroyale

    Mod, I’m in agreement with you: Americans demonstrate a blend of these characteristics and although I think violence is part of the American character, so is OPTIMISM. I think that’s one of the traits (or cultural artifacts depending on where you are on the nature/nurture divide) that entertains and annoys our foreign friends.

  41. ladymisskirroyale

    Ah, the American Way! Just don’t mention Brian’s Song.

  42. ladymisskirroyale

    Excellent rationalization and research!

  43. ladymisskirroyale

    These are excellent suggestions and points for discussion. I’m still hoping we can come up with the best nomination that includes a nice blend of lunacy and sorrow, or optimism/self-promotion and violence. Could it include both quieter songs and some ass-kicker numbers?

  44. Europe ’72 would not be nominated by me. Maybe Workingman’s Dead, which actually did cross my mind and has the requisite blend of optimism (Uncle John’s Band), mythology (Casey Jones), violence (New Speedway Boogie) and death (Black Peter). But I think the Americana thing is just too much of a cliche’d hook for the Great American Album. I’d rather pick something modern and mythic. Howzabout Patti Smith’s Horses?

  45. Slim Jade

    Hmmmm…I like it.

  46. misterioso

    I guess this would be the time to say I’ve never read Garp or seen the movie. I’m a little unsure about the whole Irving thing, though I liked Owen Meany a great deal and thought Cider House Rules quite good. Dunno if I’ve read anything else, probably not. I like Exeter a lot, though, the town, I mean.

  47. ladymisskirroyale

    I like the more modern twist mentioned by geo. So I’ll throw out “Double Nickels on the Dime.” I don’t know it well enough to discuss competently but I bet a number of you do. And consider the upstart indie label giving it additional cred…

  48. All of the characteristics mentioned so far (optimism, violence, idealism, etc) come from the same primary characteristic, and that is a questing or a searching that seems to be hardwired into the American psyche.

    A lot of things probably account for this (the original European settlers sailing into a possible abyss; opportunities provided by a big sprawling land full of limitless resources and threats; the ability to rise above your station through hard work, or dumb luck, or ingenuity, or ruthlessness) but that searching seems to drive it all.

  49. I picked it because it’s a big, dumb, pompous blow-hard of an album, that isn’t at all what it claims to be (rock & roll, that is). I think it’s suitable for consideration.

  50. Double Nickels is a great choice. Appropriately sprawling…it contains multitudes!

  51. I love this pick, and I wish it were up for true National Honors, just to see the “Make English America’s Official Language” people’s heads explode as “Tres Hombres” is declared the Great American Album.


  52. trigmogigmo

    Wall of Voodoo’s Call of the West should be considered, though it is more focused on the dusty west. The title track that closes the album and “Lost Weekend” are just so vivid. Violence, dreams, self-delusion, despair. Those two songs seem like a matched pair to me: the former written as a warning to a new arrival, the latter a scene between two struggling survivors.

    “Call of the West”:

    “Lost Weekend”:

  53. ladymisskirroyale

    I like them. Like a Rock N Roll Dashiel Hammet.

  54. Like Oats’ fine suggestion for X’s Under the Big Black Sun, Talking Heads’ Fear of Music speaks to the Great American in me. It’s also a “city” album. I get a little tired of rock culture’s glorification of backwoods ways. I know rock ‘n roll has deep roots in that area, but it’s 20th century (and beyond) music that operates in a highly commercial world. I also like the fact that Fear of Music takes place in characters’ heads. It’s a really uptight, introspective album that plays out in the middle of skyscrapers and packed sidewalks.

  55. ladymisskirroyale

    If you liked Owen Meany and Cider House Rules, you will also like Garp. Maybe even better. And you won’t have to read all those damn capitals all the time.

  56. Suburban kid

    As an American Studies major, the intro course was called “American Values”, which tried to deconstruct American identity by looking at common cultural themes and values.

    I don’t remember all the different themes identified, but one of them was “place and movement” and looked at the importance of transience and settlement in American history, mythology and pop culture going back to the colonists, then the immigrants, and then the great internal migrations. We learned about how America was unique in terms of the amount of movement there still is (OK this was 30 years ago), how it is so common to pick up and move thousands of miles away based on opportunity, etc. We talked about the highway and the train in American literature and song.

    To illustrate this, the grad student teaching the course brought in a guest performer to sing the Easy Listening standard “Please Come to Boston” by Dave Loggins, which is all about a wandering boy wanting his girl to join him in a new town, while she tells him no, he should come home to Tennessee.

    After class, I asked if I could write an extra-credit paper on this topic and the next week turned in my essay on how that song sucked ass. I offered a much better example, “Roadrunner” by the Modern Lovers, the ultimate song about place and movement in America — where movement is not only not about the destination, there is no destination, and where pride of place is strong but only in the context of circling it on highways while blasting the AM radio.

    I nominate The Modern Lovers (original vinyl with nine tracks) for this song, and for its twin paeans to America, “Old World” and “Modern World”. The rest of the album has to do with love, lust, jealousy, betrayal, and growing up — universal themes, but then so are many of our so-called “American” themes.

  57. Good stuff, Suburban Kid, and a good nomination!

  58. I enjoy John Irving novels too. Garp clearly being his excellent apex. I would also put Infinite Jest on that list of post-modern great American novels. Try carrying that cinderblock around with you across the country. Well worth the tote though.

  59. mockcarr

    I was thinking of that one too, but I figured it was too subversive to really be real ‘merican.

  60. misterioso

    A great record, obviously, and you make a good case. To my (New England) ears it is a region-specific lp, but maybe we have part for the whole and all that going on. Anyway, hope you got a good grade on the takedown of “Please Come to Boston.”

  61. Maybe Boston’s debut…Huge moneymaking, technological marvel without a soul.

  62. Happiness Stan

    I considered the Modern Lovers as well, possibly my favourite album ever, but even when Jonathan Richman sings about sex and violence it still sounds like he’s wistful for ice cream men and aliens.

  63. I do like Fear of Music and Double Nickles for their incorporation of the many different sides of America, but I would like to submit a record that is a crucial source for the T Heads and the M Men’s funk riffs and political agitation, while being more culturally expansive: Sly and the Family Stone, There’s A Riot Goin’ On.

  64. Slim Jade

    Now that’s gettin’ all Greil Marcus-ian. I concur with the choice.

  65. ladymisskirroyale

    Great addition to the American phenotype and great nomination for Great American Album!

    I’d love to hear more about that extra credit paper you wrote…other than “Road Runner” being a better example of your theory, why else does “Please Come To Boston” suck?

  66. Wall Of Voodoo – love this band, Lost Weekend http://lyricsmusic.name/wall-of-voodoo-lyrics/ is one of the best songs.

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