Staff Picks: Twang, Texture, Truck Drivers

Robert Rauschenberg.

If you, like me, are a fan of Harry Chapin’s “Thirty Thousand Pounds of Bananas,” you’ll love Finn Murphy’s The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road. Murphy, a truck driver since 1980, lets us ride along as he crisscrosses the U.S. ad infinitum. We journey down Colorado’s deadly Loveland Pass, where he sweats his air brakes’ ability to hold; bomb straight through 199 miles of South Carolina swampland in a nine-truck convoy; and get lost out in America’s lonely “couple of thousand miles of corn.” The Long Haul delivers because it is a survey of a culture fused to a working man’s memoir—and Murphy, smartly, avoids sentiment and lazy comparisons: “I do not for a moment think I’m a symbol of some bygone ideal of Wild West American freedom of any other half-mythic, half-menacing nugget of folk nonsense.” There’s a theory that the secret engine of American literature is movement—Melville sent Ishmael to sea, Kerouac hit the road, Don DeLillo forced the Gladneys out of their home—and if it’s true, it’s amazing we haven’t yet seen the Great American Truck-Driving Novel. Once a viable career, the job is threatened by cost-cutting corporate structures and the inevitable adoption of driverless cars; soon truckers may go the way of whalers and typesetters. Maybe, as America’s reliance on the profession fades into the rearview mirror, we’ll see that novel yet: I predict, and hope, that The Long Haul marks the beginning of a new set of American road tales. —Jeffery Gleaves

MoMA’s huge Rauschenberg show—“Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends”—has opened, and, as Dan has already pointed out, opinions of his work will abound. Mine was formed long ago; Rauschenberg’s was among the first art that appealed to foundational elements in my own aesthetic: texture, materiality, color, unruliness. I caught his massive traveling retrospective when it came to Houston in 1998 and so have seen a good deal of the work in this new show, but I wasn’t aware of the extent to which collaboration, which this exhibition aims to highlight, was central to his practice. I knew, for instance, of the sets and costumes he made for Merce Cunningham and for Tricia Brown, but not that he’d shared studio space with a young Cy Twombly and that Twombly contributed to his friend’s early Combines; that he staged the process-based program Hommage à David Tudor in 1961 with Niki de Saint Phalle, Jasper Johns, and Jean Tinguely; that he was friends with Öyvind Fahlström and the two traded work (on view is Fahlström’s translation of Rauschenberg’s name into Birdo, Fahlström’s invented language based on bird sounds). He and Johns shared a studio in the late fifties, and Rauschenberg recalled, “Jasper and I literally traded ideas. He would say, ‘I’ve got a terrific idea for you,’ and then I’d have to find one for him.” —Nicole Rudick 

A nice balm for me this week has been this pair of 1970s albums by the country musician Will Beeley, to be rereleased by Tompkins Square Records at the end of the month. Beeley made the first, a mellifluous, heartfelt set of originals (plus a cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”) called Gallivantin’, in a small studio in San Antonio, Texas, in 1971. The second, Passing Dream—a rougher, huskier, twangier package—came nearly ten years later in a proper studio in Mississippi. Beeley never found fame, nor did he make more music after that; he faded peaceably into obscurity, and now, with his wife, he’s a long-haul truck driver, carrying “different types of cryogenic frozen liquids—liquid natural gas, liquid nitrogen, and most recently liquid helium.” And yet his musical reputation has soared: today original copies of Gallivantin’  fetch a cool $900 apiece. Because I’m in the habit of stalking longing, especially when country’s involved, I’m withered by the echoes between “Easter Sunday Song” from that first album—“I had a dream, but even that’s unclear / I know it could have last, but I don’t see it anymore. / Things we had departed out the door” —and from the title song on the second—“Is it all just a passing dream, left for someone else to find?”—Caitlin Love

The Washington Post’s David Weigel has dared to write a book about something terminally uncool: progressive rock. The Show That Never Ends charts prog’s unlikely rise in the seventies, when, for abstruse reasons, it became permissible for self-serious young men to produce mythological slabs of vinyl, rife with bizarre instrumentation, byzantine chord changes, and senselessly complicated time signatures. And people liked it. Weigel defends the genre charmingly and often convincingly—“it was music that copied nothing and could be replicated by nobody,” he notes in his introduction—and even if you’ve never owned a copy of Dark Side of the Moon you’ll find plenty to enjoy in his chronicles of the era’s excesses and oddities. Has his book softened my disdain for Rush? Well, no. But it’s only strengthened my affection for King Crimson. —Dan Piepenbring

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