Shots in the dark

By JAMES PARKER  |  January 29, 2008

The above extract is a fair example of Carducci’s thorny professorial style, and if you’re troubled at all by that loud ptoing! sound as the geezerish wad of his contempt hits the old spittoon, then you may return at this point to your iPod and your books about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Carducci is crankily unapologetic in his conviction that the American musical rebellion of the early ’80s, particularly as manifested in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, was freakdom’s last stand. “Our closing frontier,” he writes in Enter Naomi, “was the sixties cultural revolution as it died out in the seventies and early eighties. In retrospect the Black Flag/SST story looks like a cultural analogue to the Manson-Weathermen-S.L.A.-Black Panther-Nixon White House-People’s Temple endgame — art just had more life in it than crime or politics or religion.”

Maybe all elegies are manifestos in a sense, and all manifestos elegies. At the heart of it all, of course, are Black Flag — a band, Carducci writes, “evolved to withstand failure on any scale.” Chaotic, imprisoned head music allied to huge discipline: the indeflectibility of Greg Ginn, Flag’s founder/guitar genius and SST boss, was as impressive as it was merciless, and it left plenty of people behind. Among other witnesses, Carducci is kind enough to cite, as fringe testimony, my own portion of the SST literature: an unauthorized biography of Henry Rollins that I wrote back in the Grunge Age. He needn’t have, but as a brief turner over of stones in that area I can vouch for his evocation of the SST world as a sort of Darwinian bohemia, where minds and bodies exposed themselves to constant hazard in pursuit of some quite unnamable satisfaction. These people lived under desks, with strips of floor carpeting for makeshift curtains, eating crackers and dogfood. And when they went out on the road, everybody wanted to beat them up! I exaggerate only slightly. They were, Carducci writes, “the best people money couldn’t buy,” in an age when involvement with good music “cost you something.”

Reflections such as these are humanized by the constant if fugitive presence of the book’s muse, whose built-in instinct for destruction elicits some extraordinary prose from Carducci. “Men buzz around as hardly more than hairy boys until the hand of fate squashes them in their tracks like bugs. Women’s lives are demarcated by a series of traumatic, usually bloody, rehearsals for death: the death of the little girl at menses, the death of the nymph at the loss of virginity, the death of the single girl at marriage, the death of the bride at the birth of the mother, the death of the mother at menopause. On occasion, under such pressures a girl might easily add some blood-letting of her own.”

Books that resist generic classification are condemned, by definition, to find their own audience: it takes as long as it takes. Enter Naomi, like Geoff Dyer’s non-biography of D.H. Lawrence Out of Sheer Rage, Joseph Mitchell’s tramp arcanum Joe Gould’s Secret, or J.R. Ackerley’s canine valentine My Dog Tulip, is a one-off, and its strangeness and formlessness more or less guarantee it an undetermined period of literary exile. But history will not, in the end, be able to resist it. The kids will be listening to Black Flag’s Damaged one day, or Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, and they’ll want to know: these nutters, how did they do it? What improbable victories were theirs? And at what cost? And Enter Naomi, as a document, a monument, a work of art, and — not least — a love letter, will come into the kingdom.

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