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School of the rock 'n' roll novel

August 7, 2009 | 10:07 am

Morrissey_sxsw

Who would teach a college class in the rock 'n' roll novel? Pauls Toutonghi, born in Seattle in 1976 to Egyptian and Latvian parents, author of the novel "Red Weather" (Random House, 2006) and an English professor at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon. He talked to us about his class -- and why it ended up in the basement -- which he taught for the first time this spring.

What was the general arc of the class -- did you have a question or thesis about rock 'n' roll novels?

The class was really a quest in pursuit of an answer to that very question: Is there some kind of thread that unites these books?

What books did your students read?

We started with Tom Perrotta's "The Wishbones," then we read Frank Portman's "King Dork." Then Salman Rushdie's "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," then "Meat Is Murder" by Joe Pernice -- this book is interesting because it's one of the few books of fiction in the 33 1/3 series. And it touches on one of my favorite albums of all time: The Smiths' "Meat Is Murder" [above, the Smiths frontman Morrissey performs at SXSW 2006].  Then "The Gangster of Love" by Jessica Hagedorn, "Graced Land" by Laura Kalpakian, "The Rotters' Club" by Jonathan Coe and then, finally, "The Exes" by Pagan Kennedy. Which was great!

We also read excerpts from Don Delillo's "Great Jones Street" and watched "High Fidelity." How did we survive? I'm not quite sure.

What did your students think of the books?

As is the case with a lot of literary study, it ended up depending on the lens through which we looked at the novels.

So if we read Dick Hebdige's "Subculture: The Meaning of Style," then we ended up thinking a lot about the ways that a dominant culture (the media marketplace, say) harnesses and exploits a smaller subculture. We ended up seeing that -- in nearly all of these books -- the exploitation of artistic expression took center stage.

But if we read, say, Lyotard's "The Postmodern Condition," then we ended up looking at something like the indie-rock movement and emphasizing the way that it was "characterised by an abundance of micronarratives." And so on. . . . Greil Marcus made everything seem historical. . . . Or if we read Kant's "Critique of Judgment," we then talked about the ways that early rock bands, like the Stooges, for example, combined anxiety and pleasure, and turned it into the sublime. Especially for their fans, who were, in large part, hypnotized by the transgressive nature of their music. We listened to "Now I Want to . . . Be Your Dog" many times over the speakers in the classroom.

The sound system was really, really awesome. We had a technology-enabled, auditorium-sized, basement classroom -- so we could generate some noise. It was a little wild. Intellectual, but a little wild.

In what way was the class wild? Was it something more than playing music loudly?

The answer, plus why students might take a rock 'n' roll novel class and an in-class playlist, after the jump.

The class was originally in a different room, on the second floor. My friend Karen was teaching Chaucer next door -- and that was a bit rough, for her, I think. She was reading "The Pardoner's Tale" aloud, in the original Middle English, and all of a sudden "Unchained Melody" came floating in through the wall. It was a little distracting. So I moved to the basement.

I think that "wild" is a relative term, actually. I mean -- in a way I'm only kidding -- there was nothing terribly revolutionary or wild about the class itself. But I don't think that my lit classes as an undergrad had loud music of any sort. There was no Bikini Kill, Third Sex or Bratmobile in accompaniment to whatever feminist texts I have read as a student, for example.

Since there is a lot of sex and drugs and bad behavior associated with rock 'n' roll, some of the class discussions did cover territory that could have, in certain eyes, be seen as a little risque. But the overall tenor of the class was most certainly PG.

I felt very lucky to be able to augment the study of literature with some technological aids. Short video clips of the Sex Pistols, for example, were invaluable when we were discussing that band. Many of the students had never even heard of that particular band, amazingly.

What was your sense of why the students were interested in this particular class?

I think some of it was the fact that I slipped the phrase "rock 'n' roll" in the class description. In fact, some of my colleagues were joking about that. They threatened to start teaching "Rock 'n' Roll Physics," or "Rock 'n' Roll International Affairs."

I think that also there is a strong yearning among students for classes that connect, in some way, with their daily lives. Here we were looking at books that were, many of them, published within their lifetime. Compared to some of the other texts we study, these felt quite immediate to them, and so they felt perhaps a little more in control of their educational experience.

Of course, this isn't always a good thing. If you don't know that Jim Morrison was, for better or worse, referencing Blake, you lose something from the experience of his music. That is, of course, a terrible example. But it's important to stress that without the literature of the past, there would be no literature of the present. And the novels of the 19th century, and 18th century, still live on in the novels of today. Literature is a palimpsest, without doubt.

There are decades between Greil Marcus's early books and today's college undergraduates. Did you find any pop cultural divides between his concept of rock and its place and your students'?

They loved Greil Marcus! They loved "Mystery Train," which we read almost in its entirety. In fact, I had originally just planned to assign the Robert Johnson chapter, but they asked for more of the book.

Sure, there's been some cultural slippage there. Even the word "rock" seems a bit antiquated. Even the word "indie" feels a bit antiquated, and that's a relatively new term. The culture moves so fast these days -- is on so many technological steroids -- that the vocabulary can barely keep up. I had to use terms like prog rock and queercore and emo and hyphy in order to feel remotely relevant.

But, at some level, I still felt like a dinosaur. I felt like my father asking me, when I was 16, if I'd been "using a marijuana cigarette."

Did you get any surprising or unexpected responses, particularly books that you perceived one way yet the students perceived differently?

Actually, yes, this happens all the time! One of my saddest experiences in the classroom was teaching Eduardo Galeano's "The Book of Embraces," which is among my favorite novels. I love that book quite intensely -- beyond, really, being able to talk about it in an analytical way. My students had, for whatever reason, a negative response. We were at opposite ends of the taste spectrum. And so there was nowhere else to go. I loved it; they didn't; but we still had three hours of class left.

Where does your interest in the rock 'n' roll novel come from?

I think that it comes from two passions that I've always had: writing and music.

I've been in a band, the Great Gift Idea, with my friend David Bratton for nearly 10 years now. We're very much a DIY outfit, just the two of us with our laptops and some scratchy microphones.

And, of course, writing. It's all I ever wanted to do from the time I was 12 years old. As a writer, and somebody who dreams of recording more music, you have to be a reader as well.

Reading is the engine that drives your writing, both with lyrics and with fiction.

What were some interesting conclusions your class came to, or questions it raised, in the end, about the rock novel?

In some sense, literature classes are always a little maddening like that. I tried to guide them towards questions, so that they'd walk away from the semester saying: How does popular culture turn a work of literature into a product? Is there anything wrong with that? How do authors manage to infuse language with power and intensity and raw emotion? Can you effectively write about music with words? What makes a character come alive on the page?

Can you give us an example of a class reading assignment, and the music you'd play in class?

Let's see. . . . So here's an example of the reading assignment: "Mystery Train" by Greil Marcus, p. 19-39 ("Ancestors: Robert Johnson"); "Graced Land" by Laura Kalpakian, p. 1-30. That's about 50 pages.

Then, for that class, the playlist was (we would only listen to as many of these as time and discussion allowed):

Robert Johnson, "Hellhound on My Trail," "Crossroads"
Bill Monroe, "Blue Moon of Kentucky"
Arthur Crudup, "That's All Right (Mama)"
Elvis Presley, "That's All Right (Mama)"
Kokomo Arnold, "Milk Cow Blues Boogie"
Elvis Presley, "Milk Cow Blues Boogie"
The White Stripes, "Stop Breaking Down"
School of Seven Bells, "My Cabal"
Arcade Fire, "Une Anee Sans Lumiere"

Making the playlists for the classes was the best part!

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Morrissey performs at SXSW 2006. Credit: mrmatt via Flickr

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