RIP Denis Johnson and Other Grief Thoughts

Greetings, friends!

I guess since this newsletter has become a space for me to talk about personally meaningful artists and other cultural figures who have recently passed away, I should mention how shocked I was to learn (on Instagram, of all places) that author Denis Johnson died last week.

The summer during college that I studied abroad in London, the film version of Jesus' Son starring Billy Crudup was being pretty relentlessly advertised in Time Out magazine and on posters in Tube stations. I'd never heard of the story collection, the author, or the director, so I'm not sure why I would have made a point of seeing it. I guess I was just particularly susceptible to the slow drip of its unavoidable promotion. At any rate, it pretty instantly became one of my favorite movies. Back at Indiana University that fall, I happened to mention having seen it to one of my film studies classmates. He sort of grimaced and asked how it was, incredulous that a movie version existed at all. "It's one of my girlfriend's favorite books," he explained. "I just don't see how they could possibly make a movie out of it." After I finally got around to reading it, I could definitely understand what he meant (even as it made me respect the film all the more, for doing the impossible).

Other than the sheer nastiness of the drug-addicted characters' behavior, a large part of why the book seems so adaptation-proof is Johnson's writing. It's compact and poetic, existing right on the line between plainspoken and inscrutable, and totally, breathtakingly gorgeous. The paperback edition of Jesus' Son that I own is only 160 pages long and can easily be read in one afternoon, yet I probably think about and reference its prose more often than any other book besides my beloved Great Expectations.

For example, any time I've been cleaning or moving or doing a lot of difficult physical labor that leaves me exhausted yet pleased with myself, I always want to quote this passage from the story "Work":

All the really good times happened when Wayne was around. But this afternoon, somehow, was the best of all those times. We had money. We were grimy and tired. Usually we felt guilty and frightened, because there was something wrong with us, and we didn't know what it was; but today we had the feeling of men who had worked.

Or, when someone is very obviously going through a painful and/or harrowing personal situation, and it makes me love and respect them all the more because of it, this bit from "Beverly Home" often comes to mind:

No more pretending for him! He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other.

There are dozens of other passages like these throughout.

I churned through a handful of Johnson's other novels in subsequent years (eerily bringing a copy of Already Dead with me to read in the hospital the day that my dad had his first stroke) and I come back to Jesus' Son as often as I can. I still intend to get around to his 600+ page Vietnam novel Tree of Smoke, for which he won the National Book Award for Fiction, at some point. I'm always seeking out writing and writers who keep pushing me forward with my own craft, and Johnson is definitely a major part of my own personal pantheon. I'm grateful for the relatively small but seemingly inexhaustible body of work he's left behind.

Table of contents:

  1. What's new on the blog

  2. Things I've Loved Lately

  3. "Wichita Lineman": The 2017 Covers Series

What's New on the Blog

This month on Queen of Peaches, I get super vulnerable about some long-term grief:

"I wrote a short post on social media this year saying that Mother’s Day bothers me less than it used to. In contrast, though, the anniversary of my mom’s death, on May 26, affects me more, and more deeply, every year, the farther I get away from it. This year, I’m 30 years away from it. I’m sure that a lot of the nature of my reaction is that I’m finally safe enough to feel, in my body, the overwhelming sadness and confusion of it, in a way that I couldn’t at 8 or 18 or 28.

So, in one sense, that’s great. That means I have a great life. That means I’m thriving. But it also means that I’ve been having panic attacks all week."

Click here to read the rest.

Things I've Loved Lately

In no particular order: Chris Stapleton's From a Room, Volume 1 * Mickey Zacchili's Instagram comic Space Academy 123 * This wonderfully bizarre (and fake) Mookie Wilson inspirational quote * Sunburning by Keiler Roberts * Gene Kannenberg Jr.'s abstract asemic comic Qodèxx * This wonderful story about Roger Moore (RIP) * This lovely Twitter thread about meeting Mr. Rogers in an elevator * Seeing different groups of dear old friends two weeks in a row * The incredible production of Jesus Christ Superstar that just closed at the Paramount Theater in Aurora * singing with the Chicago Artists Chorale in the final concert of their third season * Hearing guitarist John Moulder use a ring modulator to peak out an epic solo during Jackie Allen's second set at Winter's Jazz Club * Providence Perfume Co's Violetta tea * Being complimented by my Lyft driver for smelling like Amouage's "Lilac Love"

Rita Wilson is apparently living my dream life.* Not only is she a successful actress and producer, she also released an album called AM/FM in 2012 that's full of super groovy and singable stuff like "Never My Love" and "Cherish" (someone's a fan of the Association) and, yes, "Wichita Lineman."

Click here to listen to the song on YouTube.

I totally understand the temptation to do an incredibly reverent version of this song. It just feels at this point like a secular American hymn. But the plinky piano and drippy strings on her recording unfortunately sound like they were flown in from a late-'80s Narada recording session. Her vocals are the saving grace here, though; they are, for the most part, simple and heartfelt. The one thing I do especially love about her take is that she sings the first line without alteration--"I am a lineman for the county"--rather than trying to fidget around with "I am a linewoman" or some equally unnecessary gender pivot.

*Please note, however, that being married to Tom Hanks does not constitute any part of anything I ever dream about.

With love (direct from fairyland, apparently),