"One of my favourite Australian writers of his generation, David Free has the rare gift of writing critical prose with a creative dimension. Whether talking about high culture, popular culture or both at once, he is the master of the line of argument that makes you hungry for what happens next. Such a knack for turning the process of thought into a dramatic narrative is given to few, but he not only has it, he seems determined to develop it to the limit. His plain, natural but invariably melodic style combines appreciation and judgment in an addictive blend, the appreciation deep and wide-ranging, the judgment precise and sane. His powers of illustration leave most poets and novelists sounding short of skill, and how they leave most other critics sounding it would be impolite for me to mention. Enough to say that he is many furrows ahead in his field." — Clive James

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Forging a Fall Guy

The Evasions of Making a Murderer, Parts 1 and 2

Pound for pound, Making a Murderer 2 must be the most scandalously dishonest and groundbreakingly boring American documentary ever made. Even if it had lasted for only two hours, it still would have been a hot contender for that title. But to spend ten more hours protesting the innocence of the incredibly guilty Steven Avery is a surreal, almost insane exercise in tedium, impertinence and delusion. One has heard of tantric sex. This is tantric denialism.  

Making a Murderer 1 was a deeply deceptive piece of work too; but at least it was entertaining. That time around, the film-makers had an almost unbelievable story to tell; and there were places, in that first series, where they could afford to be straightforwardly truthful for whole minutes at a stretch. Their narrative began in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, in 1985, when a woman named Penny Beerntsen was brutally raped on a Lake Michigan beach. In her hospital bed, Beerntsen was shown a set of mug shots. She identified one face as the face of her attacker. The face belonged to a man named Steven Avery, a semi-literate no-hoper and petty criminal whose family ran the local auto wrecking yard. 

There was no physical evidence against Avery, and he staunchly protested his innocence. But at his trial, the most compelling testimony came from the victim, who swore that Avery was her attacker. Found guilty, Avery was sentenced to 32 years in prison. He soon exhausted his appeals, and looked doomed to serve out the rest of his sentence. But in 2002, after spending 18 years in prison, Avery was exonerated with the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which used DNA analysis to establish that Penny Beerntsen’s actual rapist had been another man altogether, who happened to bear a strong physical resemblance to Avery. Released, Avery returned home, became a minor local celebrity, and set about suing the County for $36 million. Meanwhile Beerntsen, mortified by the size and consequences of her error, apologized to Avery, and campaigned publicly to raise awareness about the fallibility of eyewitness memory.

Shortly after Avery launched his lawsuit, his case took a stunning and awful turn. A young woman named Teresa Halbach went to the Avery Auto Yard to photograph a vehicle for a sales catalog, and she never came back. A few days later, her car was found in a remote part of the Avery lot. Inside it were traces of her blood and of Steven Avery’s. In a burn pit in Avery’s backyard, Teresa’s charred remains were discovered, along with fragments of her clothing. Avery was duly charged with her murder. His nephew, Brendan Dassey – a sixteen year old with the mental capacity of a far younger child – was charged with murder too, largely on the basis of a problematic confession. Both Avery and Dassey were ultimately found guilty, and both received life sentences. 

The original Making a Murderer had a lot of material to work with, then. The film-makers had access to footage from both Avery’s and Dassey’s trials, and they used it generously, if selectively. The series lasted ten hours. I was one of those who binged it in a matter of days. Netflix was relatively new in Australia then; I urged my friends to subscribe, if only to check out Making a Murderer. There was no doubting that the show had craft, I thought; you had to admire the way it kept delivering cliff-hanger after cliff-hanger, so that you couldn’t not keep watching.

But the show discouraged critical thought in several ways. Not wanting to hear any spoilers, you carefully refrained from Googling the case until the show was over. When you finally did – if you did – you were able to discover that the show, for all its length, had omitted a vast amount of pertinent information.

Consider, to begin with, the question of Brendan Dassey’s long videotaped confession. According to the show, this confession was simply invalid and untrue; it was bullied out of him, and Dassey had merely said what the police wanted to hear. That is certainly possible; but other readings are possible too. It is possible that, even if the confession was coerced in the legal sense, it was still either partly or fully accurate. And if the confession was accurate, it suggested that Dassey was at the very worst a peripheral participant in the crime, manipulated into complicity by his horrible uncle. If that was so, you could mount an argument that Dassey, although guilty, did not deserve his life sentence.

To say all this another way, the Dassey question is a complicated one. A reasonable person, if permitted to view his confession in full, might come to one of several possible conclusions about it. (This explains why it has been the subject of so many successful legal appeals and reversals over the years.) But the film-makers carefully rationed the interrogation footage in a way that headed off all possible conclusions except one. Over the course of both seasons, they repeatedly showed the parts of Dassey’s confession that made him look good, and never showed the parts that made him look bad. And the parts that make him look bad make him look very bad. To see those portions of Dassey’s confession, though, you had to surf the web. But why did you have to do that? Wasn’t the film meant to be all about the case? It certainly felt as if it was. So why omit that part? If Dassey was wholly innocent – as the film never got tired of claiming – then why were the film-makers so afraid of presenting the evidence in its entirety? If the jury made such a howling mistake, why not let the audience see everything that the jury saw, or at least a balanced sample of it? Here as elsewhere, the show avoided taking the hard, adult measure of tackling the evidence head-on. Instead it took the childish short-cut of excising all the nasty bits that might have made you disagree with the film-makers’ conclusions. When, after the release of series one, the directors were criticized for their tendentiousness, they hotly replied that of course their film omitted certain footage, since it was designed to present a “point of view” rather than a complete picture of the truth. This was bad luck for any audience member who had been naïve enough to expect something like objectivity from the show. Such viewers effectively wound up getting duped.

But anyway, the show’s leniency towards Brendan Dassey was mild, compared with the contortions it was willing to engage in on Steven Avery’s behalf. In real life, the evidence against Avery was overwhelming. On the night of Teresa Halbach’s disappearance, he lit a huge bonfire in his back yard. Remnants of her bones and teeth were later found in that burn pit. In a burn barrel located elsewhere on his property, the torched remains of her phone, her camera, and the contents of her wallet were discovered. A bullet fragment with her DNA on it was found in his garage. Ballistics analysis proved that the bullet had been fired from Avery’s gun. Either the man was guilty, or he was the victim of a vast stitch-up.

Dutifully, Avery’s defense team argued, at his trial, that he had been framed. But there were elements of Avery’s behavior that could not be easily be squared with any “framing” narrative. Three weeks before the crime, he had called Teresa out to his property to photograph a different car, and had alarmed her by answering his door wearing only a towel. After that, Teresa was wary of visiting Avery’s home again. But he lured her back to the property, on the day of her disappearance, by means of an elaborate if feeble-minded ruse. First he persuaded his sister, against her will, to list her car for sale; then he telephoned Teresa’s business and arranged for her to come and photograph the vehicle, booking the appointment under his sister’s name, and supplying her address, which was located next-door to his own. On the afternoon of Teresa’s disappearance, before her arrival, Avery twice called her phone using a feature that disguised his own number. Over the next few days, he offered conflicting stories about his interactions with Teresa that afternoon. He said she had never turned up. He said she had turned up but he had never spoken to her. He said she had turned up and they had exchanged small talk. So if Avery was indeed framed for Teresa’s murder, whoever framed him had a few uncanny strokes of good fortune. First of all, Avery happened to have been actively stalking Teresa before the crime. And then, immediately after it, he started behaving exactly like a man who had something to hide.     

At no point in Making a Murderer is all this evidence is presented to you coherently, at the same time, in its totality. The film-makers never have the courage or the integrity to admit that the case against Avery was solid and compelling. Indeed, it is conceivable that they are so deluded that they don’t even grasp that fact. The film takes you on an entirely inverted tour of reality: it spends an eternity dwelling on tiny anomalies (why were there blood flakes on the carpet of Teresa’s car, as opposed to blood drops?) while simply never mentioning some of the most salient elements of the prosecution case. Making a Murderer is an abject piece of defense propaganda, and it conducts itself exactly the way defense attorneys do when their clients are guilty. It attacks the evidence in guerrilla fashion, in an endlessly picky and piecemeal and peripheral way. It keeps the focus tight and narrow; it never pulls back and lets you see the full picture. It would be one thing if the film was just one-sided. But the side it takes is manifestly the wrong one, the untrue one. If you didn’t know it to start with, you can tell from the way the film is constantly clutching at straws, ready to posit any answer except the one that is staring it in the face.

Old-school documentaries had narrators, giving you a voice-of-God perspective. These days, that approach is out. These days you get a mosaic of different talking heads, presenting their various points of view. In Making a Murderer, the points of view are not all that various. Most of the film’s subjects speak for Avery or Dassey. The film-makers don’t speak at all, which isn’t unusual. But they don’t seem to think either. There seems to be no guiding intelligence, no critical judgment, no readiness to apply skepticism to both sides of the argument. By and large the film-makers just point the cameras at the defense lawyers and let them run the show. The film treats the defense case as if it were simply the truth. There is no fact-checking mechanism in the film; no text appears on the screen to offer a corrective, when somebody on the defense team says something untrue. Avery’s lawyers must have been amazed when they encountered credulity on such a scale. There is a memorable scene in the first series when the defense team finds a vial of Avery’s blood that has been sitting in police custody since his earlier trial. The defense theory du jour is that the police, in order to plant Avery’s blood in all those incriminating places, must have extracted a sample from this vial. And when the defense lawyer removes the vial from the box of evidence, and holds it up to the camera, the rubber stopper at the end turns out to have a visible needle-hole in it. Incredible! Cliffhanger. Roll credits.

You need to go beyond the film – you need to surf the web, or read a book, or know something about how pathology labs work – to know that it is normal for such stoppers to have holes in them. Indeed, that particular hole was almost certainly made when Avery’s blood was put into the vial. Avery’s lawyer probably knew this, but wasn’t about to admit it on camera. Nor did the film-makers have any good motive to investigate this question for themselves. Why ruin a perfectly good “point of view” slam-dunk? And why admit that the defense never pursued the matter at trial?

But that was mere omission. The series wasn’t above perpetrating some outright distortions too. It made an endless deal about Teresa Halbach’s ignition key, which was found in Avery’s bedroom, smeared with his DNA, after several police searches of his trailer. In real life, the key turned up on the floor behind one of Avery’s cabinets, having evidently slipped out of the gap between its frame and its thin rear panel after an especially aggressive toss of the room. The police quite properly photographed the key as they had found it: lying on the carpet near the wall, with the cabinet pushed out of the way. But then the film-makers, in an effort to sustain their framing narrative, repeatedly displayed this image out of context: as if the police had made the insane and self-defeating claim that the key was sitting out in the open all along, where no genuine previous search could possibly have missed it. This was utter bad faith. At such moments the documentary, faced by no opposing counsel, was able to twist the evidence in ways that the defense, at Avery’s trial, had never dared.   

If the police did frame Avery, they must also have murdered the unfortunate Teresa Halbach. Or maybe they just knew who the real killer was, but knowingly let the guy go free. Either way, such a conspiracy would be unprecedented in the annals of American justice. But Making a Murderer smudged the contours of reality until this ludicrous scenario seemed plausible, even run-of-the-mill. After a while, your brain started to melt under the sheer weight of the defense-lawyer logic. Anything began to seem possible. The camera dwelt eerily on the faces of the local cops, while sinister music cues played on the soundtrack. The show sucked you into a fantastic alternate America in which “they” routinely do things like frame innocent men for sex murders in order to make nuisance lawsuits go away. Not that the film encouraged you to think very hard about how the cops got Teresa’s charred remains into Avery’s backyard. Did they burn the body off-site, and then slyly transfer all her bones into the selfsame pit in which Avery, by a fairly startling coincidence, happened to light his own moronic inferno on the night of the disappearance? Or did the cops stage a supplementary blaze in Avery’s yard without his noticing? And as long as they were engaged in this orgy of illegality, why didn’t they plant an item or two of physical evidence implicating Brendan Dassey, so as to bolster that shaky confession of his? Typically, the film let the defense get away with being hazy on these large points, while demanding that the prosecution be sub-atomically precise about even the most peripheral elements of its case.

At this point one must draw a distinction between the ethics of a lawyer, on the one hand, and those of a journalist or film-maker on the other. A defense lawyer is supposed to stick up for his or her client, no matter what the facts say. Defense attorneys are obliged to assume or imagine that their client is innocent; and when their client is guilty, they are obliged to acquire a giant blind spot with respect to the evidence. They are also allowed to employ, inside a courtroom, tactics and arguments that would strike us as unsavory, or even delusional, if employed in the wider world.

But when a lawyer steps out of the courtroom, and starts addressing his or her claims to a movie camera, he or she may not be all that different from an ordinary liar. Certainly a self-respecting journalist would be a fool to take any such claims at face value. Is that what the directors of Making a Murderer are, though? Journalists? Or are they entertainers? Or are they activists? Or are they semi-official members of the Avery defense team? Suddenly a new genre of film and podcast has sprung up in which nobody even seems to try, any more, to give a balanced and accurate picture of reality. Cherry-picking and bad faith are no longer viewed as wrong; they may even be the new norm. For the brave new film-maker, there seems to be no such thing as objectivity, even as an ideal. There is only argument; and if you are not on one side of it, you must be on the other.   

I remember having an argument of my own about Making a Murderer, shortly after the show was released. A friend wouldn’t accept my contention that Steven Avery was, in the light of all the evidence, patently guilty. It wasn’t possible, she said. She simply couldn’t believe that the film-makers would have manipulated her to that extent. And she was right. It was unbelievable. But it happened. The film abused the viewer’s trust. It exploited our natural tendency, as human beings, to believe what other human beings tell us. This is how civilization works. All other things being equal, we don’t expect that acquaintances or even strangers will flat-out lie to us; and we certainly don’t imagine that a film-maker will devote ten long hours to the project of virtuosically concealing the truth from us. But this is what conspiracy theorists do. They deceive us, having sometimes taken the preliminary measure of deceiving themselves. This practice becomes especially revolting when the conspiracist claims to be striking a blow for justice. There is no justice without truth. And Making a Murderer had an extremely compromised commitment to the truth. To find that out, however, you had to go beyond the film. You had to do your own research. Is this what we must always do now? Must we laboriously check up on every single documentary we see, on the assumption that we may well have been deceived? This is a depressing and time-consuming chore. But it is becoming steadily more necessary.

Somewhere near the start of Making a Murderer 2, there is a promising scene in which the directors pays something slightly more than mere lip-service to the memory of Teresa Halbach. For about two minutes, you get the sense that they have had a radical change of heart (and of brain); perhaps they have registered the complaints of their critics, and are about to provide a more rounded account of the case. And then somebody from the denialist team throws in the inevitable line: if the Halbach family really wants justice for Teresa, they deserve to know who really killed her. So off we go again. Never mind that the family already knows who killed her. The problem is that the film-makers never will, since they have blinded themselves from the start to the obvious truth …

This time around, Steven Avery has a new attorney: the formidable, and formidably boring, Kathleen Zellner. It isn’t clear whether Netflix paid Zellner for her services or whether she is working pro bono. But if she wanted to get her face on TV for hours at a stretch, she has been lavishly rewarded. Not far into episode one, it starts to become clear that the new show’s chief mission is to be very, very long: to be another 10-episode tentpole, whether the material warrants that duration or not. This is longform stuff all right: all length, and no form. There is no craft any more; there is just product. The directors stay with Zellner’s monologues for so long that even she appears to be getting bored with herself. The camera watches on, with slack-jawed credulity, while her defense team throws theory after theory at the wall, to see what might stick. In episode two, Zellner and her blood expert go to great lengths to replicate, at least to their own satisfaction, the spatter pattern found on the rear door of Teresa Halbach’s RAV4. They conclude, as nobody else has previously concluded, that Teresa must have been struck by a blunt object in the vicinity of that door. It isn’t immediately clear why we spend so much time on this. But a few scenes later we find ourselves in the state penitentiary, visiting Steven Avery in the flesh, for the first and only time in this series. Zellner has arranged for Avery to be hooked up to a fancy new kind of lie-detector. And the machine’s operator asks Avery a strangely specific question. Did he strike Teresa’s head near the rear door of the RAV4? Avery says no; and the operator gravely announces that he isn’t lying. This result, he tells Avery, is “very powerful evidence that you are innocent of the crime.”  But it isn’t. It is evidence that Avery is innocent of one particular scenario, which has been carefully contrived by Zellner and her blood expert. Naturally, the film makers do not intervene to insist on this distinction. Zellner, you start to feel, must have seen the first series. She knows that this isn’t the sort of show in which the film-makers talk back, or even want to.

Zellner presents the lie-detector stuff as a triumphant breakthrough. She and her lie-detecting expert spent two whole days examining Avery, she tells us. All up, Avery spent thirteen hours hooked to the machine. This sounds impressive, until you reflect that Zellner obviously conducted the bulk of this lie-detecting in private, away from the cameras. (It would be a rash attorney indeed who gave her client a cold lie-detector test in front of a movie camera.) And after all that lie-detecting, the most impressive feat Avery can perform, for the benefit of the cameras, is to answer this one suspiciously narrow question. For some odd reason, Zellner’s lie-detecting guru does not see fit to ask Avery if he raped and murdered Teresa Halbach, or burned her body in his yard. Nor do the film-makers say: As long as you’ve got him hooked up to that thing, would you care to ask him a few questions on our behalf? (Unless they are completely delusional, they would be as scared of the answers as Zellner is.) No. I started bracing myself for a long eight hours, after this scene had played itself out. Plainly, Zellner would be allowed to get away with performing any old lawyers’ trick for the cameras. And it would be the job of the audience to catch her out – or not.

It would be paranoid, perhaps, to suggest that the film-makers promised Zellner, before she became involved in the project, that they would not contest a solitary word she said. It is more likely that the arrangement evolved naturally. The film-makers needed Zellner, and she needed the film-makers. Together, they are locked in a dance of denialism. There is a sequence in episode seven that captures this dance in action, and showcases the film’s chronic tendency – borrowed from the defense attorneys’ playbook – to deceive you without technically lying to you. The sequence begins when we find ourselves watching archival footage of the prosecutor Ken Kratz, offering a quick-fire description of the way Avery lured Teresa to his property on the day of the crime. For some reason the archival Kratz is being allowed, albeit briefly, to lay out one of the strongest elements of the prosecution case. Clearly, something must be afoot. This is not the sort of film in which you are presented with such information for its own sake, so that you can make up your mind one way or the other. No: the directors only ever air such anti-Avery material when they have hostile intent. When they let you hear the prosecutor speak, it is only because they are about to shoot him down – or think they are about to. You brace yourself, then. Does Zellner have some new fact that will put a dent in Kratz’s story? If she does, this will finally be real news, as distinct from fake. This might be something that will really change your mind.

Sure enough, Kratz is promptly hooked from the stage, and Zellner is wheeled on to deliver her would-be takedown of his claims, in a voice dripping with scorn. But listen carefully to what she says:
The state’s theory was that Steven was a sex-obsessed maniac who lured Teresa to his property to kill her after setting an appointment with her, and that he was using deception by calling and using the name B. Janda. The truth is, she knew where she was going. At 2.27 she told Dawn Pliszka at Auto Trader magazine that she was on her way to the Averys’. She had been to the Avery property five times before October 31st, and she had done a ‘hustle shot’ on October 10th for Steven. A ‘hustle shot’ was not an appointment that was scheduled through Auto Trader but an appointment she set up herself. So she had given Steven her cellphone number. She was obviously comfortable enough to give him her cellphone number.

While Zellner speaks, we are shown court documents and phone records that prove she isn’t lying. And indeed she isn’t. She is just being grossly misleading, and deliberately illogical. Barb Janda is the name of Avery’s sister, who lived next door to him on Avery Rd. So yes, Teresa knew that she was going, in a general sense, to the Averys’. Obviously she did. How else did she get there? The point is that she thought she was going to the house next door to Steven’s. And the question is why Steven, when setting up the appointment through Auto Trader, supplied that next-door address rather than his own, and took the odd measure of posing as his own sister, sealing the ruse by giving only her first initial. The answer, as the prosecution alleged, was that Avery had alarmed Teresa, on her visit of October 10, by answering his door in a towel, so that she was reluctant to go back there. So yes, Avery had her cell number. And yes, Teresa had been comfortable enough to give Avery that number – prior to October 10. But Avery obviously knew that he could no longer use it.

So Zellner’s whole monologue is a kind of pseudo-rebuttal. It sounds kind of impressive, but it completely skates around the damning bits of the prosecution narrative. After all these years, Zellner still can’t refute the fact that Avery, in setting up the appointment, behaved deceptively. All she can do is blow smoke, and she knows it. But who is she blowing smoke at? Who is she trying to fool? She is not limbering up to fool the legal system. This particular argument, such as it is, is far too feeble to be put into any legal filing. Nor can she be trying to deceive the film-makers. It is inconceivable that they don’t know the basic elements of the towel story, after following the case for more than ten years. But what Zellner obviously does know, by this point in proceedings, is that the film-makers are not in the business of challenging anything she says, even when they know it is false. She knows that her smoke will be allowed to drift straight on past them and out of the screen: at us. It’s us she’s trying to fool: us on our couches, strapped in for our viewing marathons, ready to be entertained, and ready to believe that something that sounds so much like a real argument probably is one. And the film-makers simply lie down and let her do it. They let her pseudo-rebuttal stream out to the world unchallenged, supporting documents and all, precisely as if it is a real and devastating takedown of Kratz, instead of a limp failure to address his claims. Wittingly or unwittingly (or semi-wittingly), the film-makers are playing exactly the same game as Zellner. They are out to fool the public too.

Early in the second series, Zellner promises that she will deliver, before we are through, a full “narrative” of Avery’s innocence. This sounds promising. Finally, we will get to know who did murder Teresa Halbach, if Steven Avery didn’t. Zellner looks very confident when she says this. (She looks very confident when she says everything.) But what she says amounts to an admission that there is still, after all this time, no good reason to believe that Steven Avery is innocent. The framed-by-the-cops scenario desperately improvised by his first defense team is history. Nobody bought it – except the film-makers, and most of the people who watched their first series. At any rate, it must now be scrapped. All the reasons the first film gave us to believe in Avery’s innocence have evaporated. But if we are patient, if we sit tight, Zellner promises to find us some new ones. In the meantime, though, why is she so damn sure that Avery is innocent, if she has no reasons to think so? Don’t we need reasons in order to believe things? Well, Zellner’s reason for belief – or at least her motivation for it – is clear enough. She is Avery’s lawyer. But where does that leave us? Why should we believe in Avery’s innocence? In a way we have no option, because the film-makers, over all those documentary hours, have never given us anything else to believe in. They have never conceded that the prosecution had a case, and that the jury may have had some reason to find Avery guilty, apart from a vague desire to oppress him. No: the film-makers have fed us on a general vibe of injustice, an innocence gestalt, pumped full of air by endless interviews with Avery’s family, who at least have a sound tribal reason to be deluded about his guilt. (What is the film-makers’ excuse?) Come to think of it, maybe Zellner deserves some credit for that lie-detector stunt after all. At least it cut through the general fog of superstition and sentiment and wish-thinking, and proved, finally, that Avery really is innocent of something. Not the crime itself, mind you, but something.

If the notion that Avery was framed by the cops seemed far-fetched, Zellner’s new “narrative” pushes the still more crazed notion that it was a private citizen, a lone civilian, who murdered Teresa Halbach and then engineered the baroque framing of Steven Avery. Over the course of the show, Zellner identifies about six “potential suspects” by name. By now, the show’s ethics have ceased being just questionable, and have started being downright disgraceful. Modern-day America is a nasty and dangerous place; and now a handful of totally innocent people will face a lifetime of sneers and harassment and death-threats, simply because they had the bad luck to be in the general area when the movie’s hero – and we might as well go ahead and call him that – committed his foul crime. To start with, Zellner zeroes in on Avery’s next-door neighbor. But this lead fizzles out fast, when the guy turns out to be helpful, friendly, and pretty obviously not a murderer. (Certainly he comfortably outstrips Zellner’s client in the not-reeking-of-guilt stakes.) Back in the car, leaving the man’s house, Zellner glumly returns to the drawing board. “Now I don’t know if the police maybe are responsible for bringing the car in,” she says. “And they’d also be responsible bringing the bones in.” Zellner looks and sounds like a woman engaged in a real investigation. But her inquiry is a pseudo-inquiry, because it can never really go back to the drawing board; no matter how many leads it runs down and burns out, it will never let itself look at the only person you need to look at, if you really want to solve the crime. The Avery explanation is forbidden; it is taboo. Again we must acknowledge that Zellner has no choice but to observe this taboo, because she is Avery’s lawyer. But again we must ask: what is the film-makers’ excuse?

As it happens, Zellner doesn’t fully revert to the cop theory. She sticks with civilian suspects for a while. If the first series didn’t scruple to put Teresa’s ex-boyfriend briefly in the frame, Zellner is not above throwing him into the mix once again, for old times’ sake. After that, she briefly smears Teresa’s former room-mate as the possible killer, merely because he has taken the ill-advised step of cancelling an interview with Zellner’s investigator. (In Zellner’s world, it is an outrage to charge a man with murder when a charred corpse turns up in his burn pit; but it is okay to pin the deed on a guy who has the temerity to dip out on a scheduled interview.)  

The list of suspects and scenarios expands; and we are apparently supposed to be impressed when Zellner, filing her various petitions and complaints at the local courthouse, delivers her teetering thousand-page documents, her alpine ranges of paperwork. The film-makers still haven’t grasped the point that if there really was some firm reason to think Avery innocent, the story would be getting shorter and more precise by now, instead of fanning out ever further into endless vague possibilities. Brendan Dassey’s lawyers, who really do have a persuasive case, have always been able to reduce it a simple and unwavering charge: his confession was coerced. But the fantasy of Avery’s innocence, after all these years, still hasn’t resolved itself into any similarly solid claim. Okay, he was framed. But by whom? Well, by somebody …

Or possibly by everybody. As the new series closes, Zellner finally does put her cards on the table. Let it not be said that she is vague or unspecific, in the end, about her beliefs. On the contrary: she is laughably precise. At the eleventh hour - or let's be accurate: at the ninth hour - she outrageously turns around and pins the crime on Brendan Dassey’s longsuffering stepfather. Providing zero evidence, she suggests that he committed the murder with the help of one of the other Dassey boys, Bobby. And then, after they dumped Teresa’s car, an evil police officer found it and decided to use it to frame Steven Avery, maneuvering it onto the lot with the aid of Teresa’s ex-boyfriend. I am not making this up. Zellner says these things in all apparent seriousness. She proposes a kind of all-star, ensemble-cast conspiracy; you are reminded of that climactic portion of a charity concert when the performers, having done their various individual turns, are all brought back onto the stage for one last monster jam.

“How many people can they blame it on before they run out of people?” says the unfortunate Bobby Dassey, when he finds himself put in the frame. Poor old Bobby puts his finger, here, on a hallmark of denialist practice. Crime-solving becomes an infinite pastime, once you commit yourself to denying the obvious. Once you take Steven Avery off the table, your search for viable suspects is destined to go on, and on, and on. You may look anywhere, at anyone, except at Avery. One fears that the film-makers will have no reason not to go ahead with a third series now, since they still don’t appear to understand that a premise that hasn’t been proved yet, despite so much grueling effort, must simply be untrue. Avery’s various lawyers have left no stone unturned, in their search for the “real” killer. And what has turned out to be under each stone? Fake news. Nothing.

Think of the following documentaries. What do they have in common? Amanda Knox. West of Memphis. The Thin Blue Line. The Central Park Five. Actually, they have a few things in common. The protagonists of each film were innocent; they were imprisoned for crimes they did not really commit, and they were ultimately set free. But more to the point, each of those movies was relatively short. They were feature films, not multi-episode shows. A hypothesis emerges: it does not take forever to document a real miscarriage of justice. When a true injustice occurs, a single alternative explanation will tend to emerge, generally revolving around a clear alternative culprit – and that alternative story will get stronger and stronger as time goes by, until it hardens into the truth. And this process does not tend to take forever.

On the other hand, think of the following documentaries and podcasts. Serial (Season One). Making a Murderer (Seasons One and Two). The Staircase. Each of these pieces goes on for a very, very long time. And none of them, over the course of its jumbo running time, is ever able to deliver clinching evidence that its protagonist is not guilty. (The Staircase, to be fair, does not fit this model precisely. The evidence in the Michael Peterson case is diabolically inconclusive; it is as hard to be sure of his guilt as it is to be sure of his innocence.) A second hypothesis emerges. If you want to make an effective longform true-crime documentary, maybe you don’t want your star to be innocent. Maybe you don’t want a clear alternative suspect. Maybe you want a case where alternative theories can proliferate, and fill up time. There is an analogue in conspiracy theory. No criminal case in history has generated more dispute and more literature than the Kennedy assassination. And yet no criminal in American history is more demonstrably guilty than Lee Harvey Oswald.

Making a Murderer seems to think it is being very progressive and right-on, when it presses its “miscarriage of justice” narrative – that narrative in which the content keeps stubbornly failing to catch up to the packaging. But you can’t bang on forever about non-existent frame-jobs without doing serious harm to the American psyche, and to the nation’s trust in its institutions. If you can’t prove your contentions of conspiracy, there comes a time when you must be responsible enough to let them go. The truth is that the legal system, while it failed Steven Avery terribly the first time, handled his murder trial far more fairly and reasonably than the documentarians have. It gave Avery a fair shake; but it gave the State a fair shake too. In the end, the jury decided that the State was right; and to date, despite their decades of toil, nobody on Avery’s side has provided a wisp of convincing evidence that the jury got it wrong. To keep insisting that the Avery case was somehow a travesty, without offering any proof of that, is to deepen the public’s cynicism (and nihilism) for purposes of entertainment. It is to put yourself on roughly the same page as Trump, with his untrue “America is all broken” narrative. And it is to put yourself there using Trumpian techniques – assertion and innuendo, unsupported by evidence. The new series of Making a Murderer has been reviewed tepidly, but even its harshest critics have tended to accept its bottom line, praising it for at least shedding light on America’s “corrupt” or “failing” or “ineffective” legal system. But the American justice system can’t be wholly rotten, if a fantastically guilty murderer like Steven Avery is still lawyered up, still in with a shot, still brazenly rolling the dice after all these years.  

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Get Poor Slow

My novel Get Poor Slow is out now from Picador. From the reviews:

"Gripping ... he writes the prose of a neurotic angel." 

"The first novel to make me laugh out loud since Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim ... I can't recommend this book highly enough." 

"In a lifetime of reading and reviewing I've never met a scenario quite this close to the bone … a raging satire on the modern book industry – a mad nightmare of talentless literary ambition liberally laced with money, sex and murder.” 

"Free is a funny, funny writer … a pacy, ribald, intelligent crime comedy for any reader." 

"One star out of five." 

In stores now.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

AC/DC and Me (originally published 2014)

I was an aficionado of cock rock long before I ever heard it called that, and indeed well before I possessed a discernible cock of my own. At the age of nine I was an authority on KISS. At the Faulconbridge Primary School talent show in 1979, three mates and I performed a dramatic mimed rendition of “I Was Made For Lovin’ You.” We wore all the relevant face makeup, painstakingly applied by my friends’ sisters. Where appropriate, we wore capes. We wielded nylon-string guitars borrowed from teachers who used them, by day, to accompany group renditions of “Frère Jacques”. My friend Matty W., portraying Peter Criss, played fake drum rolls on the school’s minimalist kit. I was Gene Simmons: the demon. Whether I did the tongue stuff I don’t remember. Actually I do remember, but I’d prefer not to dwell on it.

A year later, at the talent show of 1980, we put away childish things. Unmasked, dressed in decidedly more casual threads, we appeared as AC/DC. In July of that year the band had released the monumental Back in Black album. They had a new lead singer: the enigmatic Brian Johnson. “You Shook Me All Night Long” was the album’s lead single, and that was the tune that crackled over the school’s PA while we fake-strummed our Spanish axes. Did we care that AC/DC had five members rather than four? Yes, but not enough to bother recruiting a fifth kid. Did we know what it meant to shake a woman all night long? Not in very much detail. Johnson made it sound gruelling but worthwhile. 

Sadly, I didn’t get to dress up as Johnson myself. That plum role had been swiftly commandeered by my alpha bandmate Robin E. – who was, to be fair, the ringleader of the whole project. His costume wasn’t elaborate. All he had to do was rip the sleeves off his shirt and put on a cloth cap. Who knew what Johnson’s face looked like underneath it? Somebody else – I can’t remember who, but it still wasn’t me – got to be Angus. Since Angus dressed up as a schoolboy anyway, that wasn’t much of a stretch. Third in the pecking order, I got to be Malcolm. I didn’t know much about rhythm guitar, but I was in awe of Malcolm’s long hair and overall dress sense. Above all I envied his Levi’s. My own jeans hailed from a far humbler house of denim – the kind that didn’t care to advertise its name or logo on the back pocket. They were made of a royal blue, plywood-like fabric that bafflingly refused to soften or fade. I looked like Woody Guthrie preparing to board a 1930s freight train. Certainly I made a flawed Malcolm. How I yearned to be Johnson. Yes, I wanted to be out there at the front in the cloth cap, fake-singing those imperishable lyrics: “Takin’ more than her share / Had me fightin’ for air / She told me to come but I was already there.” 

Mind you, the ingenious double meaning of those lines was lost on the ten-year-old fan. Johnson merely seemed to be indicating that he was a fast runner. Which was odd: he didn’t look like one. But if Johnson’s efforts to raise awareness about male sexual dysfunction were beyond us, we were savvy enough to get the main thing right. Back in Black was, as we phrased it in those days, unreal. Thirty-odd years later, it still stands as the second biggest-selling album of all time: comfortably ahead of Dark Side of the Moon, and second only to Thriller. It was a seminal record in every sense of the word. Before Back in Black, AC-DC was still a fundamentally Australian band, even though its three most prominent members had spent their infant years in Scotland. After Back in Black, Australia was too small to contain them: they belonged to the world. 

And it all happened so fast. At the beginning of 1980, the band’s lead singer was still Bon Scott – Bon the lavishly tattooed larrikin, master of the wicked leer and the hard-rock bagpipe solo. Scott was averse to shirts, and he dressed quite visibly to the left: in the crotch of his ferociously tight jeans something large and sinister was ominously coiled, like a chorizo in a vacuum pack. With Scott as frontman the group had cut six albums between 1975 and 1979 – in those days, bands didn’t muck around. Their most recent effort, Highway to Hell, had finally broken them in America. In early February the group convened in London to start work on a new album. The Young brothers had stockpiled some promising new riffs. Bon had jotted some lyrics in his notebooks. Just how many lyrics remains controversial: the notebooks subsequently went astray. 

And then, on February 19, 1980, Scott was found dead in a friend’s car. He was only 33. Here was another mystery for the pre-teen fan to ponder: how was it possible to choke to death on your own vomit? Superstitious youngsters, of whom I was one, worried about the way Bon’s death had so swiftly followed the success of Highway to Hell. “I’m on my way to the promised land …” Did God watch Countdown? Had he despatched Bon to the lake of fire to teach him a lesson? There are fully-grown adults on the internet who believe, to this day, that that’s exactly what happened.    

After Scott’s death, the surviving members of the group considered giving up. But with encouragement from Scott’s mother, they decided to ride on. In March they started auditioning new singers. One of them was a nuggety bloke from Newcastle – the English Newcastle – with a brillo-pad hairdo and a voice like a dentist’s drill. His name was Brian Johnson, and he and the band clicked, instantly and resoundingly. On April 1, only six weeks after Scott’s death, Johnson was officially named AC/DC’s new lead singer. In May the band flew to a studio in the Bahamas to record Back in Black. The album was released in July. And in November there we were in the primary school hall, jamming along to its first single. Whatever it was that eventually made 50 million other people buy the album – we heard it straight away, and we were only ten. 
What did we hear? First of all we heard the riffs. The two finest riff-merchants Australia has ever produced are brothers, and they’re in the same band. The Youngs are up there with Jimmy Page – they’re up there with Keith Richards himself – as manufacturers of instantly memorable guitar grooves. Back in Black was stuffed with so many bankable riffs that the ludicrously catchy “Shake a Leg” – which I firmly believed to be the coolest tune on the whole record – never even made it out as a single. The unrelenting boogie of that song made you want to shake considerably more than just a leg; the riff is so raunchy, so blatantly carnal, that it would make even a Trappist monk give serious thought to fucking the nearest consenting human. If it had appeared on nearly any other album in the world, “Shake a Leg” would have been a sure-fire 45. On Back in Black, there were too many other tracks to choose from.   

One of them was “Hell’s Bells,” the first song on side A, with its slow, dirty, ominous overture. Thirty years later, that intro still gets played over the PA before big footy matches. It promises that something primal and violent is about to happen – something definitively male. And the scary build of those lockstepping guitars is accompanied, famously, by the tolling of a large bell. It rings thirteen times, which seems to signify something. But what? Was its knell a tribute to the departed Bon? Well, this is how Malcolm once explained the genesis of the bell idea: “I was just taking a piss and I just thought, ‘Hang on, why don’t we get a big fucking bell?’”

Flip to the start of the B-side and you had the title track, with its crunching three-chord intro. Duh, du-du-duh, du-du-duh. E major, then D, then A, all played in the open position. The fifth, the fourth, the first: chord progressions don’t get more meat-and-potatoes than that. Any chump of a beginning guitarist can play those chords. But it took the Young brothers to combine them in exactly that way: to buffer them with a couple of crucial silences, then stitch them together at either end with those funky little turnaround licks. The result is an eternally fresh riff that speaks directly to the gonads. Try listening to that tune without thrusting your perineum at something, even if it’s only the nearest wall.    

And then, over and above the riffs, we heard Johnson’s voice. Sometimes we could even hear what it was saying. In the case of the title track it wasn’t hard. Consider the song’s chorus. “’Cos I’m back. Yes, I’m back. Well, I’m back. Yes, I’m back. Well, I’m back, back. I’m back in black. Yes, I’m back in black.” Again we’re dealing with the most rudimentary of ingredients. But when Johnson sings those lyrics in context, over the controlled hurricane of those guitars, you get one of the most rousing choruses in hard rock. That was the alchemy of AC/DC: they had the knack of turning meat and potatoes into gold. The chorus of “Back in Black” sounds exactly the way you feel when you’re in your prime and ready to show the world who’s boss. It was the mood of the whole album. The band had suffered a near-terminal blow. In rock’s short history, what other major band had ever recovered from the death of its lead singer? It was hard to think of one, but AC/DC were about to give it a red-hot go. They were back, and they meant business. 
AC/DC and I went our separate ways, eventually. A year after Back in Black they released For Those About to Rock. Either it was a disappointing album or my tastes were evolving – or maybe both. For another year or two I expanded my collection backwards, adding albums from the Scott era. But the evidence suggests that my AC/DC phase was over by 1983: when Flick of the Switch came out in that year, I didn’t buy it. I remember feeling a sentimental pang in 1990, when they had a hit with “Thunderstruck.” I could tell – abstractly, academically – that it was their most bitching song since the Back in Black era. But I just wasn’t into it any more. I couldn’t feel it. It was like looking into the face of a person you no longer loved. At around the same time, I heard that the American Army, psyops division, had played AC/DC songs at apocalyptic volume in order to smoke Manuel Noriega out of his Panamanian bolt hole. I sympathised with the strongman. I’d have surrendered too. Maybe I was getting old before my time, but by the age of twenty I found it distinctly hard to believe that I’d ever derived pleasure from listening to Johnson’s singing voice – to those “stuck-pig vocals,” as the critic Kurt Loder once called them.

That’s the kind of AC/DC lover I am, then – a lover who’s largely moved on. These days I no longer look like much of a headbanger. But chop me in half like an old redwood, look to the inner rings of the trunk, and you’ll still find the ten-year-old who believed that AC/DC held the key to pretty much all of life’s mysteries. At that age, you badly need clues about what the adult world has in store for you. Listening to AC/DC was like putting your ear to the tracks and hearing the rumble of the oncoming train. Their world was so grown-up: alcohol, cigarettes, ear-rings, tattoos, prison (wouldn’t that be cool?). 

And sex – above all, that. I don’t think we really knew what it was yet, but we somehow understood that AC/DC’s music was almost exclusively about it: the sleazy and insistent jolting of those guitars, the prodding throb of that proletarian rhythm section, Scott’s insinuating leer, Johnson’s grimaces and grunts and whinnies – and the gaunt and shirtless Angus, sweating and labouring over the neck of his cherry-red axe. All these things resonated with us at a level even lower than the gut. They spoke to parts of us that were on the brink of acquiring some high voltage – some TNT – of their own. Girls didn’t seem to like AC/DC nearly as much as boys did, and I believe I can now see why. 

The days when kids needed record albums to solve the world’s mysteries are long gone now, of course. In the information age there are no unanswered questions left, least of all about sex: click a mouse button and you can watch videos that would have made Bon Scott wince. Back then … well, we’re talking about a vanished era, clearly. It wasn’t just that there was no internet. There wasn’t much else, either. On TV there were four channels: the edgiest show I’d ever seen was Welcome Back, Kotter. There were no VCRs, let alone video shops. When you went to the cinema, you went under parental supervision. If you wanted to hear candid adult talk what you mainly had was records, and the records that spoke most brazenly were the records of AC/DC.

Mind you, AC/DC didn’t make things easy for you by including printed lyrics with their albums. Sometimes the first mystery you had to solve was what in Christ’s name the singer was even saying. This was a particular problem in Johnson’s case, unless you happened to speak fluent banshee. But the way I remember it, we assumed that a certain portion of any given lyric was simply not meant to be intelligible. Understanding fifty per cent of what Johnson said seemed a reasonable goal. Endlessly speculating about the other half gave us something to talk about. We sat in front of the speakers, leaned in close, and dropped and redropped the needle on the disputed areas of each track. We had the time.

Music was a far more social thing back then: social in the sense that it involved coming face to face with other people. If you wanted to hear a record you didn’t have, you went to a friend’s house and listened to it there. Either that or you bought it, which was a social act too: you had to go down the street and exchange cash for an object. Theoretically it was possible to make and trade tapes, but to get a clean copy you needed a cassette deck that jacked straight into your amplifier – and who, in the late seventies, had one of them? Nobody I knew. In desperate circumstances you could shove a portable recorder up against one of your speakers, but the resulting tape made the band sound as if it was performing at the bottom of a well. Plus you could hear other things in the background: distant lawnmowers, the slamming of screen doors, barking dogs. Even at the age of ten, we were picky enough audiophiles to frown on recordings of that sort. 

My own copy of Back in Black still has the original price sticker on it. It cost $8.99. When you earned fifty cents a week in pocket money, that was a serious purchase. You made recon visits to the record shop first, as if buying a car. But when you finally forked over your hard-earned pair of Caroline Chisholms, you got something excitingly tactile in return. The vinyl record album was a glorious object. The artwork on the cardboard sleeve was big enough to pore over and admire. (Who gets a kick from looking at the front of a CD?) If you were lucky, the sleeve folded open to reveal more art on the inside. The pictures were a vital part of the album’s aura. Records had character, damn it – they made you feel you’d invested in something solid. CDs, to say nothing of MP3s, really are measly things by comparison. 

Back in Black, of course, had no cover art or gatefold. In tribute to Bon, the front of the album was entirely black, except for some white edging around the band’s name. But if you ran your fingers over the cardboard you could feel the title in embossed capitals, black on black. (Executives from the band’s record label lobbied against the all-black cover, feeling that it would mess with the album’s sales. Good call, guys.) Slipping the disc itself from its staticky U-shaped sleeve, you had to decide which side to play first. I always preferred Back in Black’s B-side: I still know it far better than the A. When you blew on the needle to get the ball of dust off it, the speakers emitted an airy rumble that sounded like the firing of a hot-air balloon. The record still hissed and popped anyway: if there was a fail-safe way of eliminating dust crackle, I never discovered it.  

Building my AC/DC library backwards from Back in Black, I skipped Highway to Hell because a friend already had it. I got the Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap album – not just because it had “Jailbreak” on it, but because I couldn’t resist the cartoon artwork on the sleeve, with its bogan iconography: Phil Rudd wielding a pool cue; Malcolm in a blue singlet holding up a can of Foster’s; Bon with his missing tooth and his Popeye-ish forearm, on which the album’s name was prominently tattooed; Angus squinting out from behind his cigarette while lazily delivering an old-style Aussie up-yours sign, featuring two fingers instead of one. That original Australian version of the album is now scandalously hard to find on CD. What you get instead is a bastardized “international” edition – no cartoons on the cover, and an arbitrarily butchered track list from which “Jailbreak” has been wantonly hacked. The two-fingered flip-off isn’t the only treasure of Australian culture that’s been trampled out of existence by the forces of globalization.   

There was a song on Dirty Deeds called “Big Balls,” in which Scott cunningly exploited some of the ambiguities inherent in the word “ball.” “Some balls are held for charity / And some for fancy dress / But when they’re held for pleasure / They’re the balls that I like best.” In those days, that qualified as cutting-edge filth. You couldn’t hear bollock gags on TV, at least not before my bedtime. Scott’s lyrics functioned as a kind of pornography – a mild kind, but in those days mild pornography was the best sort of pornography you could hope for. We lived in an age of stark and bitter austerity, pornwise. Pictures of even semi-nude women were devilishly hard to come by. A friend of mine’s father had a pile of old Playboys in his garage. Kids came from adjacent neighbourhoods to file reverently past the stash. It was as if he had he had the Book of Kells in there, or Mao’s corpse.  

But the record player, when AC/DC was on it, was a reliable source of smut. That stretch of deep-pile carpet in front of the stereo was the internet of my childhood. It was unpoliced, anarchic; your parents had no idea what was going on there. Poised reverently before the speakers, keeping dead still so as not to bump the needle, I received a disturbingly large chunk of my sex education from Bon Scott and Brian Johnson. We looked to both men as high authorities on the art of wooing and winning the ladies. They really did sing about sex a lot. And really, could you blame them? Listen to those thrusting guitar riffs: let’s face it, most of them were about fucking from the word go. So what else were Bon and Brian meant to sing about over the top of them? African debt relief?

Needless to say, you had to wait till your parents were out before you could risk spinning a song like “Big Balls” at optimum volume. Kids on TV like Greg Brady had turntables in their own bedrooms, the spoilt American shits. (They also had maids, and fireplaces made of stone.) But in my circle the bedroom hi-fi system was an unimaginable luxury. You had to make do with your parents’ hardware, which was invariably located in the main room of the house. Your opportunities to crank up the filth were sorely limited.   

By no accident, I was listening to an AC/DC record when a friend of mine broke the news to me about the mechanics of human reproduction. The scene is scorched into my memory. It occurred late in the Scott era, which means I’d managed to reach the age of eight or nine without hearing about the rudiments of copulation. In those days such innocence was still possible. We were sitting in my friend’s lounge room, which had thick seventies shag carpet the colour of English mustard. Under the smoked Perspex lid of the turntable, one of the early albums lazily revolved. The volume was on low, in case one of his parents walked in. My friend was two years older than I was, and already something of a man of the world. He invited me to explain the meaning of Bon’s phrase “I’ll be your back door man.” I proposed that Bon, in an effort to avoid detection by some lady’s husband, was offering to slip into her place of residence via an entrance hidden from the street. I still think that’s a fair interpretation, by the way. But my friend countered with a baser reading. I was horrified. I raised a certain technical objection. But that only served to make it clear, embarrassingly clear, that I had no real idea what a front-door man was either. Well, my friend was happy to clear that one up too. 

On another occasion, in the same room, the same friend tackled a task with a higher degree of difficulty. He tried to explicate Bon’s notorious lyrics to “The Jack.” This was a tricky job, since neither of us had ever actually heard the song. It appears on T.N.T. – AC/DC’s second album, which no kid in our group actually owned. Even so, we all somehow knew that “The Jack” was meant to be Bon’s filthiest lyric ever. Like the epics of Homer, the words were transmitted orally from person to person, in more or less garbled form. They had something to do with a game of cards, and the game of cards had something to do with rooting. But you needed to be an exceedingly worldly person to decode the symbolism. 

My friend took a shot, but I can now see that he got the whole thing hopelessly wrong. He tried to tell me that the song was about taking a girl’s virginity. (Probably he had it mixed up with “Squealer,” which really is about that.) He had it on good authority, or so he told me, that the lyrics went like this: “How was I to know, she’d never been dealt with before?/ How was I to know she’d never had a full house before?” I believed him – for about thirty years. And now, courtesy of YouTube, I find that what Bon actually sings is this: “How was I to know that she’d been dealt with before? / She said she’d never had a full house …” The young lady, in other words, isn’t a virgin at all. Quite the reverse – it horribly emerges, via the metaphor of the Jack, that the poor girl is a hotbed of venereal disease. Thank Christ I didn’t have to take that on board when I was ten. 
Sooner or later, with AC/DC, you get to the frontman question. If Scott had stayed alive, would the band still have gone on to become massive, as distinct from merely quite large? We’ll never know the answer. All we can confidently say is that Scott’s AC/DC and Johnson’s AC/DC were different bands with different merits. With Scott as frontman the band felt homelier, Aussier – neither of which is a bad thing. He imposed his personality on things, and his personality was unusual. The way he leered down the barrel of the Countdown camera – it seemed to indicate that he was taking the piss. So did a lot of his lyrics. This was a man who wasn’t afraid to rhyme “high society” with “ballroom notoriety.” He was the Noël Coward of the testicle-related rock lyric. 

Not that Johnson was averse to writing about genitalia. The guy’s very name was a synonym for the schlong. But his approach was more direct: he preferred the sledgehammer to the rapier. In a hard-rock singer, that isn’t necessarily a demerit. In fact it’s almost certainly an advantage: maybe AC/DC needed a no-frills frontman like Johnson before it could achieve global hugeness. Johnson made the band seem less quirky, more universal. Bon was a one-off, and you don’t hear people say that about Johnson. Johnson’s more of an everyman figure, and strangely ageless. He doesn’t look all that old now, but that’s probably because he didn’t look all that young back then. The fact that his lyrics are generally indecipherable probably counts as another global selling-point: fans who can’t speak English are not missing out on a great deal. Nor, when you could actually understand them, did Johnson’s lyrics give away much in the way of personal information, except that he enjoyed sex, preferably in the form of fellatio, and driving cars.  

Sometimes he was able to get both his favourite pastimes into a single lyric. “She was a fast machine / She kept her motor clean / She was the best damn woman that I’d ever seen.” If we took those lines seriously, we might conclude that all a woman had to do, in order to strike Johnson as outstanding, was keep her motor clean. Apparently he was associating with ladies who didn’t do that as a matter of course. But obviously it’s a mistake to query Johnson’s meanings too rigorously. The beauty of his lyrics has much more to do with their rhythmic drive than their semantic content. Piling up quick-fire rhymes in clusters of three or even four, Johnson gave the music an even more frantic sense of locomotion than it already had. “She had the sightless eyes / Telling me no lies / Knocking me out with those American thighs.” 

“Sightless eyes” – does that mean anything at all? Was the lady blind? On drugs? As kids we thought he was saying “she had me circumcised” – a lyric that makes slightly more sense than the official one. But if Johnson had to chuck in the odd semi-meaningless phrase to keep things hurtling forward, who cared? In this case you’d forgive him for just about anything, because he’s building up to the most memorable phrase in the AC/DC canon: “those American thighs.” American thighs are a distinctive thing, all right. But had anybody ever saluted them in song before Johnson did? Not as far as I know. I still can’t hear that lyric without picturing the then-thighs of Farrah Fawcett, as depicted on the famous 1970s poster – the one where she wore an orange swimsuit over a suntan of an almost identical hue. Not long ago I heard a TV interviewer ask Johnson how he came up with the “American thighs” line. Johnson confessed that he’d never actually met an American woman at the time. “But I’d seen a lot of ’em on the telly,” he added, “and I’d always wanted to fuck one.”

Well, we’ve all been there. But you wouldn’t want to keep thinking that way as a grown man, at least not all the time. AC/DC’s music caters for that snarling portion of you that never stops thinking that way. It does what hard rock has always done: it appeals to the parts of you that aren’t civilized. When you’re a young male, almost all of you isn’t civilized. As I entered my teens, my notion of the perfect woman still drew heavily on Johnsonian ideals: she was a fast machine in short shorts, who could ride a mechanical bull without falling off it. I like to think that my erotic priorities have matured a bit in the years since. I no longer pine to meet a lady like that; I doubt we’d have much to talk about. These days I yield to none in my abhorrence of sexism. When I hear a lyric like “stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen for me” (Johnson, 1980), I can detect almost immediately that it sells women a bit short, and doesn’t say much for men either.    

The older you get, the fuller your life is of things you’ve grown out of. But before you could grow out of them you had to grow into them, and that was the fun part. Growing out of things leaves you wiser but crustier. After a while it strikes you that there are some kinds of excitement you’ll just never feel again. For me, the thrill of being almost a teenager will forever be linked with my enthusiasm for AC/DC. Their music was the exact sonic equivalent of how it felt to be that young and raw, that full of energy. It was noisy, funny, randy, unpretentious, bullshit-free, dirty but innocent, totally uninfluenced by fad or trend or hunger for social respectability. There is something laudably Australian about their straightforwardness. They’re still making music, and it doesn’t seem to have changed a bit. I believe Malcolm is still wearing the same pair of Levi’s I hankered after in 1980. There will always be a place for AC/DC’s stuff. But the place is no longer my place, and it hasn’t been for a while. 

When our passion for someone dies, said Marcel Proust, a version of us dies too. We become somebody new, somebody our former self wouldn’t approve of or even recognise. By the time we’ve thickened into middle age, our past is littered with the corpses of our defunct loves. For Proust, that was good news, sort of. It meant that the more weather-beaten we are, the less reason we have to fear death, since death has already happened to us before, many times. “The man that I was, the fair young man no longer exists; I am another person.” 

Brian Johnson, on the other hand, said: “Forget the hearse ’cos I’ll never die.” There are days when I find Brian’s message more persuasive, or at least more invigorating. My ten-year-old self does still exist. He won’t die till I do – if I do. Just occasionally, some unexpected jab from the outside world will bring him fleetingly out to play. About a year ago I ran into my old friend and partner in mime Robin E. – the man formerly known as both Paul Stanley and Brian Johnson. It was a brief encounter, but we instantly fell back into our old dynamic, our old rapport. We didn’t bother pretending to be respectable men. There’s no point bullshitting someone you knew when you were that young. Thirty years’ worth of bark fell off us like rice-paper. 

The same thing happens, just once in a while, when I hear some half-forgotten scrap of AC/DC: an outrageous lick from Angus, a shaft of lyrical single entendre, the tolling of a big fucking bell. For a ghost of a moment I’m back there on the old shag carpet again, when all the good bits of my life seemed to lie ahead of me, and all the world’s promise could be crammed into the grooves of one black disc. 

(Originally published in the book Rock Country; republished in The Best Music Writing Under the Australian Sun)

Friday, November 17, 2017

Here comes the judge

Even if you were to take Martin Amis’s fiction off the table, you could still plausibly claim him as the Anglosphere’s most interesting living writer. Look at what he’s produced, in the various departments of non-fiction, just since the turn of the millennium. You have Experience (2000), the gravid memoir; The War Against Cliché (2001), that endlessly nourishing book of literary criticism; Koba the Dread (2002), his controversial monograph about Stalinism; and The Second Plane (2008), an indispensable collection of post-9/11 political pieces.

And now we have The Rub of Time, his strongest collection of non-fiction to date, a feast of a volume that brings together his hitherto uncollected essays, reportage, and reviews. All of Amis’s usual interests are here, along with some new ones. There are meditations on his favourite writers (Bellow, Nabokov, Larkin). There are pieces on sport and popular culture, including some wonderfully funny stuff on tennis. And there are bang up-to-date appraisals of American and British politics. Attacking these questions from the vantage point of his maturity, Amis confirms his status as one of literature’s great exemplary all-rounders: always stylish, always deeply intelligent, always voraciously interested in the world around him. 

Sprawling and various as it is, the new book keeps returning to two linked themes: masculinity and excess. And a good half of it zeroes in on the place where these themes achieve their most startling expression: America. None of this will surprise the long-term student of Amis’s fiction, which has been probing these connections since his breakthrough novel Money (1984). The narrator and protagonist of that book, the cashed-up philistine John Self, was addicted to the modern world. That meant he was addicted, above all, to America. Starting with Self, Amis’s characters have always been hopping on planes and flying to the United States. And Amis has always been flying there too. Finally, in 2012, he stopped flying back to his native Britain, and settled in Brooklyn, New York. And why not? “America,” he writes in the current book, echoing Henry James, “is more like a world than a country.” What better place for the international writer to base himself?

Amis has already published one collection of non-fiction about America: The Moronic Inferno (1986), whose resonant title he borrowed from his mentor Saul Bellow. The best pieces in the current book revisit the inferno, and find that it has grown no less moronic. The clinching essay, written at the height of last year’s election campaign, concerns Donald Trump: a man who embodies the inferno so thoroughly that he wears it as a hairstyle.

What is it about America, exactly, that keeps stoking the fires of Amis’s imagination? There is a clue, I would suggest, in the following passage from The Information (1995) – another novel whose central character takes a life-altering flight to the States, where he encounters, among other grotesques, a woman named Phyllis. “In person, Phyllis seemed to be the kind of American woman who had taken a couple of American ideas (niceness, warmth) and then turned up some dreadful dial, as if these qualities, like the yield of a hydrogen bomb, had no upper limit – the range had no top to it – and just went on getting bigger and bigger as you lashed them towards infinity.”

Lashed towards infinity: it could be the title of the present book, or of the next biography of Trump. Amis is not an anti-American. Far from it. But he is old-school enough to assert that some things do have upper limits. Decorum, he is in the habit of saying, must be observed. Which means, of course, that the satirist in him loves it when decorum is violated, the more floridly the better. Hence his ongoing preoccupation with America – its dreadful crankings-up of the dial, its lust for the infinite.

Take pornography – which Amis does, in the current book, by paying a visit to the San Fernando Valley, home of the American hardcore industry. How does pornography crank up the dial? By making itself more erotic? Emphatically not. It does so by becoming nastier – more sordid, more violent, more degrading to the female participants. Amis, who loiters on the set of a gonzo feature until he can take no more, gives you all the grim specifics. These would make for a rough read if the author didn’t introduce an uncharacteristic note of warmth, in the person of an “unforgettable” local porn star named Chloe, who serves as his guide through the Valley of filth, his bawdy Virgil. Chloe is an improbably self-aware and ironic porn star; if she didn’t exist, Amis would have been embarrassed to invent her. Since she does, he is free, indeed obliged, to use her humanity as a counterpoint to the squalor of her milieu. 

In his fiction, Amis has a natural tendency to heighten and exaggerate. His non-fiction plays it straight, since the realities it deals with tend to be exaggerated already, and often downright unbelievable. Reporting from Porn Valley, Amis achieves comic effects by simply offering up the facts in deadpan fashion. Mind you, the comedy is a deep shade of black. When a performer named Regan Starr complains of being violently assaulted during a porn shoot, Amis give us this:

“The director of the Rough Sex series (now discontinued), who goes by the name of Khan Tusion, protests his innocence. ‘Regan Starr,’ Tusion claims, ‘categorically misstates what occurred.’” 

Like his late father, Amis is a connoisseur of language. He revels in the sobriquet of the maligned auteur, Khan Tusion; he instinctively knows that the surname must be isolated and repeated. And he knows that “misstates” is gold too: a quintessentially American piece of pedantry that makes Tusion sound like Mitt Romney on the campaign trail.  

In Porn Valley, reality is self-satirising. The same effect prevails in Las Vegas, where Amis goes to play in a poker tournament. Vegas isn’t just a made-up town. It would seem to have been made up specifically by Martin Amis. In its casinos and fake streets Amis encounters various avatars of American excess, including the morbidly obese. People’s very bodies, in Vegas, “are unbounded, infinity-tending, like a single-handed push for globalisation.” 

As long as he’s sailing close to the wind, Amis singles out a woman “who has munched herself into a wheelchair: arms like legs, legs like torsos, and a torso like an exhausted orgy.” Notice, if you haven’t already, the brazen censoriousness of “munched herself into.” Not many writers, these days, would dare to put it quite like that, for fear of incurring the dread title of fat-shamer, or body fascist. Who does Amis think he is, judging this woman he’s never met?

To a writer of Amis’s generation and type, the answer to that question is straightforward. He is a moralist, a satirist, a cultural critic; his job is to register what’s wrong with society. Judging people, therefore, is his bread and butter. And he’s still at it. Evidently he missed the meeting at which it was decided that judging is no longer on. He’s still cracking jokes, too – another problematic activity, given that humour, as Amis himself once pointed out, always entails an assertion of superiority. 

Pushing his luck in two ways, Amis is always getting himself into public scrapes. There is a piece in this book about Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party. In it, Amis observes, or claims, that Corbyn is “undereducated.” When the piece first appeared in print, that word earned Amis a brief spell in Britain’s naughty corner. Columns got written in which he was accused of snobbery, elitism, and other crimes against advanced mores. 

Writers of such columns, however, will always be at least one move behind Amis. He already knows what they think, and what they will say; his prose is already a reaction against their strictures. One of his key virtues as a writer is the seriousness with which he takes his vocational obligations. He knows that our culture is full of people who want to shrink the domain of the sayable. And he knows that one of the writer’s duties is to push back the other way: to establish what can still be said, if necessary by saying what can’t be said. If writers like Amis don’t resist the incoming tide of old and new taboos, who else is going to? 

Alas, the question has already been answered, at least in America. Suddenly the world has Donald Trump. After the cult of compulsory respect, we have the cult of in-your-face boorishness. Amis deplores both tendencies with equal staunchness, without having to vary his principles to do so. His critics, on the other hand, are required to keep two sets of books here. When Amis went on record denouncing Trump’s “cornily neon-lit vulgarity,” few newspaper columnists, to my knowledge, accused him of snobbery. Suddenly they were on his side. They saw the point of elitism after all. 

Amis, the man who invented John Self, is uniquely qualified to analyse Trump. Unsurprisingly, his analysis starts with Trump’s verbal output, before broadening into a more general indictment.
Reviewing Trump’s latest book, Amis finds that his sentences “lack the ingredient known as content.” Nevertheless, they do convey a certain attitude. And that attitude clearly has its fans. Among other things, what Trump’s election tells Amis “is that roughly 50 percent of Americans hanker for a political contender who … knows nothing at all about politics.”

What is revolutionary about Trump, to put it another way, is not his ignorance, but the way he has converted it into a selling point. George W. Bush, when he stumbled over the delivery of a simple homily, at least had the decency to look embarrassed. So did Dan Quayle when he got caught misspelling the word potato. John Self, too, had a vestigial sense of shame: he knew that all his cash did not make up for his lack of culture. Then again, Self was a fictional character; he was Amis’s fantasy of what a rich yobbo ought to feel, when his conscience finally kicked in. 

Trump, on the other hand, is real. If others won’t hold him to the demands of decorum, why on earth should he impose them on himself? Like the pornographers of the San Fernando Valley, like the city of Las Vegas, he has dispensed with shame. He has proved that an American can now go all the way without it. This is his breakthrough.

One of the most resounding passages in Amis’s book occurs in an out-of-the-way place, during a brief chapter in which the author responds to questions from readers of Britain’s Independent newspaper. “Why are you such a snob?” one reader asks. After replying, first of all, that he is not a snob, in the class sense, Amis works up to this:

On the other hand, I think snobbery is due for a bit of a comeback. But not the old shite to do with ‘class’. ‘There is a universal eligibility to be noble,’ said Bellow rousingly. There is clearly a universal eligibility to be rational and literate. Sometimes snobbery is forced upon you. So let’s have a period of exaggerated respect for reason; and let’s look down on people who use language without respecting it. Liars and hypocrites and demagogues, of course, but also their fellow travellers in verbal cynicism, inertia, and sloth.

Startlingly, Martin Amis is 68 years old now. The former enfant terrible is now a grand-père terrible. But he is still out there on the cutting edge of public speech. Reading this book, I kept marvelling at what a committed writer Amis is. Superficially this seems an odd word for him, since he is not committed to any simple partisan stance. What he is committed to is writing itself. He believes that even the shortest newspaper piece must be written with all his formidable resources. He is committed to his role as the autonomous, secular truth-teller, the equal-opportunity offender who answers to nobody except himself and his readers. He still seems to think that writing can change the world. It’s a good thing he’s in career-best form. We are in no danger of ceasing to need him.