Monday, October 10, 2011

Epistolary Rex

"I oughta respond more thoughtfully to your letters. They are letters, aren't they?" -- Peter Case, to David Ensminger

In the spirit of the thing, in the spirit of this book of correspondence between singer / songwriter Peter Case and a friend named David Ensminger, which was written, according to the back cover, in less than three weeks this past summer and printed (this copy, at least) on October 6th, that is, four days ago, I'll try to say what I have say about it off the cuff and on the same evening I began and finished reading it. Normally I'm more of a fuss-endlessly-over-every-sentence kind of guy, which is probably one of the reasons I don't write all that many sentences, relatively speaking, but this is not that kind of book nor does it pretend to be, and had it been that kind of book it would, I suspect, have been much less fun to read than it actually is. Basically, Epistolary Rex is a series of more or less rambling missives between Case and Ensminger, full of riffs, rants on politics, tales of growing up in suburban America, poems, laments for friends who've passed on, notes on jazz and punk rock and Kenneth Patchen, an evocation of the bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson, wacked-out fables, and whatever else the pair happened to be thinking about at the time. It's not all brilliant -- in fact maybe none of it is brilliant, exactly -- but that's neither here nor there. Inspired in part by the Beats, by Whitman and Blake, and alarmed at the state of our culture at a time when it seems to be on the verge of evaporating into the digital ether, Case and Ensminger try to step back for a second and conjure up a little bit of the spontaneity and magic that the written or spoken word possessed before it all became tamed by academia and commerce, before it all became endlessly self-referential and "meta," before it succumbed to the imperative of what Ensminger calls "Must Produce Immediate Digestible Content." More or less unfiltered, and mentioning in passing events as recent as the massacre in Norway and the closing of the Borders bookstore chain, the book has the immediacy of a broadside with the ink still damp even as it wanders back and forth in time from the present to the 1960s and '70s to the Civil War and the moundbuilders of ancient North America. One of my favorite bits is this, from Case, which is pretty much a manifesto for the book as a whole, as well as for who Peter Case is and why he does what he does:
I tour playing music for a living, have done for years and years. It used to be the records mattered, (and they still do to me and a few others), but basically for most people they seem like an adjunct to the concert line, now. Once upon a time music was a gateway to the forbidden world, to magic, the invisible, to danger too... and the extent to which that is still true is a measure of its worth as a calling. It can't be about the money. It's gotta be about love, spells, the feel, where you get 'em, secret knowledge, turning the world around, freedom, true escape and redemption, or there's no point in playing it, and less than no point for people to listen.
It's that kind of obstinacy, that refusal to just give in to nihilism and take the path of least resistance, that is the guiding spirit for this curious, rough-around-the-edges book. Get a hold of a copy (they're available from Amazon or at Peter's gigs), turn off the damn computer, and read it, as I did, in one long sitting. If you don't dig it, write your own!

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