Artists of the Year

12 Rods, Jon Stewart, Howard Stern, Quentin Tarantino, Garrison Keillor, MF Doom, Lawrence Lessig, Randi Rhodes...

Dylan Hicks is associate arts editor at City Pages.

 

David Markson
by Brad Zellar

Since the obscure 1988 masterpiece Wittgenstein's Mistress, David Markson's work has been breaking up (and down), fragmenting to the point where he now produces what one of his narrators has called "seminonfictional semifiction."

That, I realize, sounds dauntingly postmodern, but don't let it throw you. Markson, a 77-year-old New Yorker, is unconventional, but he's also a genuinely entertaining character, capable of all sorts of real pathos and laugh-out-loud surprises. His last three books have been thematically obsessive and basically plotless collections of fragments, anecdotes, and befuddled authorial intrusions--or, in Markson's own words, novels "of intellectual reference and allusion...minus much of the novel." Every one of them, I would however argue, ultimately does add up to something more than merely an assemblage of the curious or the inscrutable.

The latest, this year's Vanishing Point (Shoemaker & Hoard), is a consistently engrossing and haunting exercise in cultural archaeology, with the whiff of mortality hanging over the whole thing. Ostensibly the work of an aging narrator who is attempting to cobble together a novel from shoeboxes crammed with notes scribbled on index cards, Vanishing Point seems preoccupied with failure, insanity, obscurity, indignity, and mortality (more or less).

Dip into a copy of Vanishing Point and you'll run across lines like these (and then I dare you to try to put the book down):

T.S. Eliot was afraid of cows.

In his manic, suicidal last year, Randall Jarrell was once called upon to introduce Hannah Arendt to a college gathering--and talked for 20 minutes about Johnny Unitas.

Karl Marx never in his life saw the inside of a factory.

At the age of eight or nine, Richard Brautigan once returned home from school and found that his entire family had moved away without a word.

Not long after Scott Fitzgerald's death, Scribner's let The Great Gatsby go out of print.

As he grew older, W.H. Auden was known for living in extraordinary filth. His own brother acknowledged that he frequently urinated in his kitchen sink.

How many Cy Young Awards would Cy Young have won?

James Baldwin borrowed money from Marlon Brando with which to finish his first novel.

William Faulkner once allowed himself to be interviewed on radio during a University of Virginia football game. And was introduced as a winner of the Mobil Prize.

Brad Zellar is a contributing editor at City Pages.

 

Randi Rhodes
by Laura Sinagra

No, I'm not talking about Ozzy Osbourne's dead speed-demon guitarist. But keep those devil horns raised, 'cause in 2004, this lefty radio-babe unleashed incendiary anti-W riffs and shredding drive-time solos that made her an honorary rock star. Sandwiched in between marquee celebs Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo on the fledgling Air America, Rhodes quickly demonstrated how her Florida broadcast had bested Rush Limbaugh's in local ratings. (Could this have been the pain that sent him scrambling for that hot oxy?)

Rhodes can be as funny (and paranoid) as Howard Stern, as stern as Limbaugh, and as wonkish as your favorite blogger. And she's not shy about using her hard-knocked history to disarm opponents who might imagine she's some East Coast fancy-pants. Rhodes came from a broken home in Queens, dropped out of community college, served in the Air Force, drove a truck, divorced an abusive spouse, adopted the child of her gay sister (who died of breast cancer), jocked for a rock station, suffered through a crushing second marital split, fought Clear Channel tooth and nail to syndicate, then left hard-won sunbelt comfort to help launch the shoestring Air America in NYC. This makes her different from Harvard grad Franken (and Garofalo, whose oil-exec dad would call to argue Bush's merits). Rhodes's show provided a call-in counterpoint that pulsed with street-level momentum. When online listeners from red states gushed, "I love you!" she zapped, "I love you more!"

Sure, Randi's not for everyone: She has been known to wear a button reading "NPR is nice--I'm not." But her scorching outrage at Abu Ghraib, her swift kicks to the Swifties, and her passionate indictments of media consolidation staked out territory that NPR is all but mandated to avoid. Her cut-the-shit wit ("You are never going to have a beer with your president") and rhetorical prowess (she had Pat Buchanan jumping sides during her RNC interview) bolstered confidence in the notion that real "moral values" would carry the day. Rhodes, convinced the election was stolen, still believes they did.

Laura Sinagra is a New York-based writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.

 

Oren Bloedow
by Greil Marcus

It was in New York, in early December, at a multi-artist revue celebrating the American ballad, that Oren Bloedow took the stage to reel off a version of Jan and Dean's 1964 drag-race classic "Dead Man's Curve." Bloedow is a downtown guitarist-bassist-pianist-and-more who currently works with the singer Jennifer Charles under the name Elysian Fields; his occasional non-singer's vocals on their albums gave no hint as to what he was up to this night.

Dressed in a dark suit, his head shaved and eyes gleaming, Bloedow--pronounced "Blowdown" without the n--picked up the mic and bent his body into a crouch. He crashed into the song as if it were one of those weird-cats-on-the-street musical monologues that dot the soundtracks for David Lynch movies--"The Black Dog Runs at Night" from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, say--but less than a minute into the performance, a David Lynch movie was exactly what the song had turned into. Made as it was for Jan Berry's flat, non-singing voice, the song is nearly unsingable, so Bloedow chanted it like a '50s jazz poet with a trio vamping behind him in some San Francisco nightclub, going off about the consumer society or lobotomy or the tyranny of suits and ties, as if "Dead Man's Curve" was actually about some great affront.

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