As a sort of run-up to tomorrow night’s Oscars, AMC is broadcasting Goodfellas. Well, really, the Oscars probably have little to do with it, despite the billing. First of all, Goodfellas got robbed at the stupid Oscars in favor of the vomitorium that was Dances With Wolves (except for a Joe Pesci Supporting Actor win, which barely cancels out Ray Liotta getting no nomination at all). Secondly, Goodfellas is constantly on AMC. And I know that because I watch it practically every… single… time. Yes, I have the fancy commemorative edition on Blu-ray, but can you really expect me to just flip past a fuckin’ shinebox as awesome as this one? Come on.
Despite my having seen Goodfellas a thoroughly obscene amount of times at this point, I had never even heard of Italianamerican, a 1974 mini-doc Scorsese made about his parents and their life in Little Italy. And how incredibly awesome is a discovery like this? Despite thinking I know the Scorsese oeuvre backward and forward, I stumble across something made 36-plus years ago on YouTube and it’s entirely new to me. Fastidious collector sharing powers, activate!
You know Mrs. Scorsese from Goodfellas — the characters visit her and are fed a spontaneous midnight meal while Billy Batts is in the trunk — but she’s in full flower here as Martin interviews them in their Elizabeth Street apartment. Funniest has to be the slow demotion of Mr. Scorsese, who starts out with the bluster of the man of the house (“Of course men cook better than women. They just don’t do it because it’s women’s work…”) and is slowly silenced by the full force of his wife’s personality.
Between kitchen interludes where she diligently makes her gravy and meatballs (watch through to the end of the credits for her recipe!), the stories flow: making wine in tenement apartments, ten cents for a knish and coffee at Yonah Shimmel (!), month-long boat rides from Sicily, clashes between the Irish and the Italians, kids stealing from fruit carts… So much great stuff. Even if they didn’t parent Martin Scorsese, what an incredible old New York couple. Love love love them.
Bonus! Watch Mrs. Scorsese accompany her son on a 1991 visit to Letterman where she makes her famous pizza (DeNiro claims it to be the “best in the world,” she says) for Dave and a visiting Bill Murray. Trifecta!
I am both stunned and humbled to say the least by how far and fast my list of “essential” non-fiction titles has traveled. Not just among sites and people of which I was already aware, but across entirely unexpected factions. Nuts! But at the same time, really satisfying to realize that there was indeed a need for some kind of list, even if just to open the door for additions and comments.
So now that I’m out there, literarily bare-assed, if you will, I’m going to take a stab at the fiction list. But first some additional detail about my original intentions and ground rules.
Doing this first occurred to me a couple of months ago, when a friend of mine told me that he gave his Led Zeppelin box set to his niece. She’s getting to be in her late tweens, and is showing the signs of becoming a pretty cool kid. So he figured, ‘Hey, I’ve got all this stuff ripped, I’m just going to give it to her. Corrupt the youth!’ (Just wait until she eventually figures out that he used to be in the Meatmen.)
That struck me as a terribly cool thing to do, not least because when I was growing up and trying to figure out what to listen to or to read, I had absolutely no such mentor. And when I recently asked around, I discovered few of my friends had one either. We all just dredged and scoured and wandered around (without the internet! in the driving snow! uphill both ways!) until we landed on things.
So if these lists have a subhead, it’s this: Stuff You Should Check Out If You’re Starting to Get Into This Sorta Thing. See, that’s not as catchy, is it? But it’s nonetheless the intent. To that end, I continue to insist that this should be a community effort. Think my list stinks? Give us yours! I forgot something brilliant? Cough it up! Google is going to bring the curious to this list for a long time, I suspect. Let’s make it a good one.
My 50 fiction titles are designed to feel a bit more like a Modern Library-type list. Tastes in fiction are infinitely broad, so I’ve gathered what I think are the classics in a particular mindset, remembering that many of them were considered shocking and even offensive upon their original release. Others are books I simply loved to death. Together, they’re a primer on dark, counter-cultural fiction. My remarks (no spoilers!) after the jump.
(N.B.: Yeah, I left off Henry Miller. I just can’t stand the guy. He makes Norman Mailer seem like a riot grrrl. But if you must, mentally add Tropic of Cancer and call this your list of 51.)
Knowing that I’ve been a voracious reader since I was a kid, someone recently asked me if I’d read all of the Modern Library’s top 100 list. Hm, never checked. So I took a look. Surprisingly, I’ve done pretty well. Not so surprisingly, that is one fusty, moldy list! Three DH Lawrence titles? Really?
Even worse had to be the “Reader’s List” that the site compiled in reaction to their editor’s list. Any time you have Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard gobbling up the top of both the fiction and non-fiction lists (and I won’t even mention the inclusion of Howard Stern’s Private Parts), skepticism is the best policy.
Then I started to dig around. There’s gotta be a list of essential cool/strange books, right? Wrong. There are lists for just about everything — sci-fi, romance, female authors, young adults, top sellers — but not a list for “us.” Who’s “us”? Well, I’m not sure. I figure if you’re part of “us,” you probably already know.
Aside from the fact that making a top 100 or 50 or 10 of any kind of art is a fool’s errand, I have nominated myself to this task. I’ve come up with 50 non-fiction and 50 fiction titles I think are keystones to understanding subculture. Or counterculture. Or alternative thinking. Or something. In large part, I went with the Supreme Court Justice Stewart method: I know it when I see it.
It’s just a list — my own personal list, pretty heavily centered on 20th century titles, rather American — but I hope that it can serve as a primer for some, a refresher for others, a discussion for veterans, maybe even a window into another way of thinking for still others. All I know is, if a post I did on Russian prison tattoos can garner 6,000 reads and (rapidly) counting, then this one can certainly get the good word out about some great reading.
Enjoy the quickie slideshow, or hit the jump for the list in text form along with comments about each. And please, leave your own suggestions in the comments! Community effort!
“Hey, are you wardrobe for this Donnie Iris video shoot today? Awesome. Here’s what we need: a yellow tux, an hour of that pretty office manager lady’s time, and some pink culottes. Can you get that together in an hour?”
I’m always stunned when my iPod throws this Donnie Iris classic at me from the shuffle. Stunned and thrilled, actually. Hatched in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Iris was a “rock star” in Cleveland and the surrounding Midwest — horrible hair, weird teeth and all. It’s true: There was once a time when AOR was independently-minded and regional enough that songs could be local hits. The olden days!
Today, singing a few bars of this to any Midwesterner of a certain age bracket will bring about a hearty sing-along, but in the interest of spreading it farther, please enjoy it here. In the meantime, I’ll continue to kid myself that Cleveland’s Michael Stanley Band had a huge national hit with “He Can’t Love You.”
You’re just starting out, right? Got that guitar for your birthday. Or maybe saved up to buy a starter axe. Gonna take some lessons. Gonna download tablatures for your favorite jams. Ready to rock the neighborhood.
But heed my warning. You are faced with a choice. And it’s this. Do you want to be Steve Vai?:
Or do you want to be Angus Young?:
Don’t be a sucker. I think you know where I’m comin’ from.
In fact, how about you try for a Chuck Berry? It’s the right thing to do: