- S.T.P.: A Journey through America with the Rolling Stones—Robert Greenfield
- The Great British Woodstock: The Incredible Story of the Weeley Festival 1971—Ray Clark
- Improvement—Joan Silber
- Janesville: An American Story—Amy Goldstein
- The Great British Woodstock: The Incredible Story of the Weeley Festival 1971—Ray Clark
- Fools—Joan Silber
- The Library Book—Susan Orlean
- Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra—John F. Szwed
- The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee—Paul D. Gibson
- Sevens Heaven: The Beautiful Chaos of Fiji’s Olympic Dream—Ben Ryan
In 1971 I was fourteen, and did not attend the Weeley Festival; in 1972 I was fifteen, and did not take a journey through America with the Rolling Stones, nor did I see any of their shows. Luckily, I don’t have to tell you all the other things I failed to do in my teenage years, because those failures are irrelevant to my reading, and in any case I have only a couple thousand words; I am trying merely to demonstrate that it wasn’t simply nostalgia that drew me to the books by Ray Clark and Robert Greenfield. I have to say, though: those were the days, eh? I don’t know why I’m asking you. You wouldn’t know. You missed it all.
The Stones book may or may not have something to do with some work I may or may not be doing, but the uncertainty of the project doesn’t really matter when the “research” is as much fun as this. S.T.P.: A Journey through America with the Rolling Stones is a firsthand account—a kind of illustrated oral history—of a chaotic, occasionally violent, tumultuously successful tour, with as much sex and drugs as you can imagine, and then a lot more on top of that. As those who have seen Crossfire Hurricane, the riveting documentary about the group, will know, the Stones are probably the toughest band of them all—not tough in the sense that they would or could beat you up (Mick was and still is a skinny little thing), but in the sense that they survived situations that would have destroyed less-steely mortals. The stage invasions that ended every show in the first half of the 1960s, the death of Brian Jones, Altamont, police harassment, press intrusions… Tumultuous events flew at them like a constant blizzard of asteroids, and in 1972, crisis mode was the only mode they had known for a decade. I don’t know whether you’re a Beatles person or a Stones person, and the question never made any sense to me, anyway—are you a Dickens person or a Shakespeare person? But it’s fair to say that the Beatles were unable to ride out the ’60s in the way the Stones did.
The year 1972 was business as usual: kids battled with security guards most nights; Terry Southern nagged Keith Richards whenever he could about a movie idea; Hugh Hefner threw open the Playboy Mansion in Chicago for the weekend, and the hospitality was both abundant and exhausting; Mick and Keith were arrested in Rhode Island, already late for their show in Boston after a diverted flight, and after a photographer was punched. While the mayor of Boston’s office negotiated to have them released, support act Stevie Wonder played for hours to an increasingly restive crowd. It’s hard to read this book without feeling panicky, strung out, paranoid, and desperate, but reading books is not like singing, drumming, or moving amps was during those few weeks. The small touches of human kindness—personal assistant Jo Bergman produced a daily newsletter full of cheery chitchat—would have made me weep like a baby.
I bought Ray Clark’s book after a conversation with a friend about those who feel compelled to boo art, and he remembered that Marc Bolan’s band T. Rex was booed at the Weeley Festival. And because I sit at a computer all day, I immediately thought, as you do, Weeley! I remember that happening! Where is Weeley? Why was there a festival there? Why was there never another one? All of these questions seemed important and demanded immediate responses, and the next paragraph of yet another novel could wait. And the answers were sufficiently surprising for me to want to read more about it.
In 1970, the members of the Clacton Round Table, a British equivalent of your Lion’s Club, decided they had had enough of donkey derbies, and agreed to put on something more ambitious for their 1971 charity fund-raiser—a rock concert. They were given the use of a farmer’s field in the nearby village of Weeley—halfway between Colchester and Clacton-on-Sea, if that helps you to orient yourself. The original idea was to book a young, local band called Mustard to play, hopefully for a couple hundred kids, if the weather held up. But someone knew someone with contacts in the rock industry, and he set about booking some better-known names. Were King Crimson available? It turned out they were. What about Status Quo? Check. Rory Gallagher? Yep. Mott the Hoople? T. Rex? Rod Stewart and the fucking Faces? All good. The organizers were told to expect ten thousand people, and then fifty thousand; in the end, one hundred and fifty thousand people came.
And there was, predictably, chaos, the vast majority of it good-natured. Some people started showing up two or three weeks before the event. Those who had failed to bring camping equipment made igloos out of post-harvest straw that was lying around everywhere, and then got on with their next job, cooking their dinners on open fires. This resulted in the first, but by no means the last, calls to the local emergency services. One of the heroes of this delightful book, a kind of illustrated oral history, is the local GP, Dr. Dick Farrow. He set up a medical tent at the festival and spent the weekend dealing with a vast array of situations, some of which he was used to—sunburn, intoxication—and some of which might have been new to him. It is unclear whether he had gained extensive firsthand knowledge of bad acid trips, for example, in Clacton-on-Sea, which—in the 1970s, at least—was a seaside town for elderly Londoners. (One of the organizers remembers Release, the ubiquitous 1970s drug charity, dealing with bad trips by squashing cream doughnuts into the faces of the afflicted.)
I regret to say that some of the funniest descriptions in the book are also the most violent. The Hells Angels, who were as likely to offer their security services at these events in the UK as they were in the US, started to antagonize the owners of the stalls selling hot dogs and beer. Within a couple of hours, the stallholders had raised a posse consisting of hoodlums from London’s then-notorious East End, who lashed out at the Angels and their bikes with spades, pickax handles, and sledgehammers. Violence is never funny, of course, unless those on the receiving end set a great deal of stock in their ability to dish it out. (Granted, there are funny bits of violence in the first Hangover film, which I re-watched over the holidays. In that case, the comedy comes from those on the receiving end being completely unable to dish it out. So, you know. Works either way.)
Dr. Dick Farrow was therefore called upon to deal with a whole procession of traumatic head injuries. The police, by the way, let the gangsters do their worst, then arrested the wounded Angels and threw them in the local jail. Dr. Farrow kept meticulous notes over this longest of bank holiday weekends, and they formed the basis for government advice for years to come. The Clacton Round Table didn’t make a penny. The chaos came at a price.
The past two months’ reading divides neatly into two halves, because the other half…Well, I don’t wish to damn Messrs. Greenfield and Clark with faint praise, because I enjoyed every single page of both their books, but both Improvement and Janesville, IMHO—and, youthful editor, please check that those letters mean something, and are in the right order—are major works of contemporary literature, as good as you’re going to find in your local independent bookstore at the moment. (Oh, and publishers: if you need uncomplicated quotes for the paperbacks, ones you don’t have to take any words out of: “Janesville is a major work of literature.” “Improvement is a major work of literature.”)
Here’s what bugs me about Joan Silber: how had I missed her? As regular readers of this column will know, I delve. I pride myself on my delving. It’s not all Philip Roth and Fifty Shades of Grey in these pages. Maybe I don’t read enough book reviews; maybe I don’t believe the ones I see. I have no regrets, really, because—thanks to a shrewd editor in the UK—I know about Silber now, and I will catch up. But there have been dry, unsatisfying periods over the last few years, when I’ve been itching to find fiction as good as this, and it makes me wonder what else is passing me by. If the rest of life is anything to go by, I would guess quite a lot.
First of all, a caveat. Improvement isn’t really a novel, even though it says it is on the cover of my copy. It’s a book of interlinked stories. And, yes, stories can be a tough sell to those who want to get lost in three or four hundred pages of storytelling, but Silber’s way of linking is so surprising and liberating that, to one’s surprise, one ends up wondering why most novels plod on with the same narrative. The first story involves a petty crime: a group of young men are buying cigarettes cheap in Virginia and selling them in New York City. One of them particularly enjoys the trips south, because he has fallen in love with a local girl. She’s mentioned only in passing, and we don’t get to meet her, but the next story in the sequence is all about her. The main character in the third story comes from the first, too, but we’re not even aware of his existence, despite his profound significance, until he takes center stage. Once you cotton to Silber’s way of working, you start to try and spot the doors she’s leaving open along the way: are we going to follow this, that, her, him? She can zip backward and forward in time; she can take you to other countries and cultures. Life is a whole mess of loose ends, and we should be grateful for Silber’s apparently insatiable curiosity.
But I love her prose even more than I love her unconventional narrative approach. The first story, written in the first person, seems to me like the perfect lesson in voice, and anyone trying to write or to teach writing should read it. Reyna, the narrator, is funny, shrewd, laconic, fatalistic, something of a fuckup, and refreshingly unbookish; there isn’t a single line that lets the reader down, or that allows you to suspect even for a second that this person isn’t real. I’m now halfway through Fools, and loving it every bit as much.
You, like me, have probably read other books that promise to shed some kind of light on where we are now and how we got here, but Janesville is the sharpest, the most thorough, the most ambitious, and the most compassionate, and it tells you things you probably didn’t know, as well. You knew, I’m sure, that when General Motors pulls out of a General Motors town—that is to say, a town that relies almost entirely on General Motors not only for its jobs and its prosperity but also for its purpose—an almighty and heartbreaking mess follows. What you didn’t know is what happens beat by beat, year by year, as the town attempts to piece itself back together. Who takes responsibility? What can they do? How do people make ends meet? How severe are the costs? Amy Goldstein’s quite brilliant book answers all these questions, and quite a few you hadn’t even thought of asking—like who looks after the teenage kids abandoned by their parents in their desperate attempts to find work elsewhere?
Joan Silber, I’m sure, would admire Goldstein’s novelistic eye, her sure sense of who these people are and how they’re responding; strong characters emerge, not all of whom you’ll like. Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan is a Janesville native, forcing through tax cuts while the children of his electors are given deodorant and toothpaste from an emergency school-supply cupboard stocked by donations. But then it’s not as if it was the election of Trump, or the Republican Congress, that ended all hope for former autoworkers. Obama pledged to help those caught “in the storm that has hit our auto towns.” His administration set up both a White House Council on Auto Communities and Workers and a new Labor Department office tasked specifically with helping these communities recover. But after Ed Montgomery, the man leading the council, took a job at Georgetown University three days after visiting Janesville and promising to help, he wasn’t replaced for a year. And the government’s own Accountability Office ended up severely criticizing both the council and the Labor Department: You built a whole town around an auto plant, and they closed it? Well, you’ll know better next time. It’s hard to imagine why you wouldn’t want to read this book. It’s not about economics, or about the car industry; it’s about life. And we all want to know about that, right? It’s why we read.