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Gone Country

By Benj DeMott

Your parents had a third parent – television. If you went back to 1952, you would be surprised. Many people – of all kinds and conditions – had just two parents.

George W.S. Trow

When the American writer George W.S. Trow died in Naples last fall, having exiled himself from his country, a youngish culture critic – who calls himself a “vulgar Trovian”[1] – summed up the credo behind his literary hero’s more cryptic statements:

I believe the mass media place under attack our capacity for self-reliance by emptying out our capacity to experience our childhood as our own; that is, a childhood that provides us with memories and associations that take total precedence over the fabricated nostalgia of movies and television.

I’m a believer too. God Bless the child that’s got his own internal resources.

Now that I’m a pop, I want my four-year old to recreate himself so I’m an enabler when he becomes the knight, Ben-Khadim St. George. Or the Indian, Red Eagle Ben-Khadim. Or the Pharaoh…Nimwit?

Yo. I’ll take any self-made pharaoh over the star of that PBS kids’ show Bob the Builder with its rocky horror chorus – “YES WE CAN!” No you fucking won’t as long as I’m his daddy.

My boy is African-American so I’m alive to plaints about George Trow’s WASPish tone and his less than inclusive approach to the defense of childhood. That Trovian faults his master for failing to make the case that “the right to a childhood of one's own, and thus to a moral and aesthetic compass with which to reject the hustler's come-on, fully transcends the circumstances of one's birth.”

But I’m not sure that’s entirely fair when I recall Trow’s account of his 1968 trip to Docena, Alabama where he was welcomed by the family of his young black companion:

Immediately I made friends with my friend’s youngest brother, Mathew, who was six at the time. I could say that Mathew went with me everywhere I went (certainly we were nearly always together), but in fact, I followed him; it was his hometown after all. We had fun, putting it mildly.

Trow wasn’t having a sentimental flashback; he cited this fine time in order to say what’s the matter with Sweet Home Alabama today. When he went back down south decades later and visited his old friend Mathew – who turned out to be married with four kids of his own – Trow had big fun again but he also found out Docena had a serious drug problem:

‘When did it start?’ I asked. Mathew, without a moment’s hesitation, gave me a specific date – in the middle 80s, as I remember. Like ‘July 16, 1985.’ I believe he could have given me the hour. That is, at a certain moment, in a certain year, not so very long ago, a certain individual came to this small, unto-itself place outside Birmingham, Alabama and changed the history of this community.

Trow linked the lingo and mores of Docena’s drug-dealers with the mad money culture of the Reagan era.[2] Trow’s attentiveness to what happened to one black community when it was Morning in America wasn’t gestural. When he celebrated Dwight Eisenhower – his “guy of guys” – he underscored the fact that Ike sent the National Guard to Little Rock:

The man who gave us D-Day also gave us the National Guard outside Central High School in Little Rock for the purpose of getting African-American students in the door. That made a rather strong point, don’t you think? I don’t think Ike would have stood for a permanent homeless population or children bringing firearms to school. Fuck the overview or the historical reasons for the problem, just get those guns out of all schools now.

But Ike (and his “aesthetic”) was long gone. Under the sign of Reagan, bottom feeders and bottom liners ruled. The country became a harsher place for Americans “of all kinds and conditions.” Faced with the Reagan Revolution, Trow began to feel like a true counter-revolutionary. He compared his own position to that of a friend “now in sympathetic relation to the new plutocracy, whereas I was not.” Back in the 60s that friend was sold on the notion that Time magazine should be turned into a cooperative venture (which seemed irreal to Trow at the time). Now this fellow had gone from gatherings of leftwing fantasts convinced “Time magazine ought to be like Le Monde” to being at a “party for the man who thought Time-Warner ought to triple in size.”

Trow felt his own “options, as to a healthy life, narrow” in the 90s. It wasn’t all about politics. He’d lost his close friend Timothy Mayer who had been his creative partner and who remained a key inspiration to Trow even after he died (young) in the 80s.

Their personal history of collaboration was invoked at a downtown Tribute to Trow this spring when one of their old comrades read a song lyric by Mayer, recasting it as a prescient warning to Trow (who didn’t end up heeding the advice).

Home by Another Way

Those magic men the Magi –
Some people called them wise,
Or Oriental, even kings –
Well anyway…those guys.
They visited with Jesus,
They sure enjoyed their stay.
Then warned in a dream
Of King Herod’s scheme
They went home by another way.

Yes, they went home by another way,
Maybe me and you
can be wise guys too
And go home by another way.

Steer clear of royal welcomes,
Avoid a big to-do;
A king who would slaughter
Will not cut a deal for you.
He really, really wants those presents;
He’ll comb your camel’s fur
Until his boys announce
they’ve found trace amounts
Of your frankincense, gold, and myrrh.

Time to go home by another way,
Home by another way.
You have to figure the gods
Saying: “play the odds”
And go home by another way.

Home is where they want you
- You can more or less assume that
You’ll be welcome in the end.
Mustn’t let King Herod haunt you
- Or fantasize his features when
You’re looking at a friend.

Well, it pleasures me to be here
And sing this song tonight;
They tell me that life is a miracle
And I figure that they’re right
But Herod’s always out there –
He’s got our cards on file.
It’s a lead-pipe cinch,
If we give an inch
Old Herod likes to take a mile.

It’s best to go home by another way
Home by another way.
We got this far
by a lucky star
But tomorrow is another day.

We can make it another way –
Safe home! as they used to say
Keep a weather eye
To the chart on high
And go home by another way.


Trow directed First of the Month’s crew to Tim Mayer’s work a few years ago and, thanks to him, we published “Home by Another Way” and other selections from Mayer’s hard-to-find collection of writings, Running from America (after locating a copy in the Dallas Public Library). We owed Trow for that and for steering us to a millionaire who gave us the largest single donation First has ever received. Though Trow emptied my pockets early on. When he called out of the blue after we put our first First back in 1998, I began sending him $100 bills each time I got my barely-there paycheck. He’d allowed he might be persuaded to write a piece for First if we let him do in Dan Rather. After a couple a months he called to tell me to stop sending him money and promised to zero in on Danno. His aim turned out to be truly deadly. He did much more, though, than deliver Dan as “D.O.A. as I can do him.” Long before Rather’s memo-gate screw-up, Trow forecast where Rather was headed: “There are now generations growing up who are going to be reluctant to accept 'news' from anybody ever…[Rather] is Bad Vector Number One as to getting us to secretly (or not so secretly) dislike and distrust the authority of News Delivery…CBS should fire Dan before he kills again.” (Trow also repeatedly invoked – in 1999 – the “Islamic revival” as one of the threats “in our new more dangerous world, which really is new, and really is more dangerous.”)

Trow’s knack for tracing mutations in America’s media constructs and placing mainstream cultural artifacts in sequence often gave him prophetic insights into developing stories (and subtexts) of our times. His most influential essay, Within the Context of No Context (1980) predicted tv would establish that non-context and “then begin to chronicle it.” Which of course happened in the mid-80s with the rise of reality tv, tabloid tv, trash tv. “There’s nothing fun about being right if what you’re right about is the triumph of the inevitably bad,” Trow once wrote, though he wasn’t above giving himself a little dap. He deserved much more than that for My Pilgrim’s Progress: Media Studies: 1950-1998 – the most imaginative account of how America’s Everyman became a wannabe insider in our Page 6, Chapter 11 society. But late Trow was slept on. I still recall how the informed but uncomprehending Times reviewer of My Pilgrim’s Progress picked up on one of Trow’s best bits – a riff about watching Joan Rivers selling costume jewelry on the Home Shopping Channel – then dropped it like hot ice. He had Trow “shrewdly discerning from Rivers’ crazed pitch…a certain sad need to be adored.” But this squeezed almost all the meaning out of the moment. The Rivers’ tale, in Trow’s telling, mattered because it told him something happened to souls of white folks in the biz of selling out.

Trow begins by seeing to the bottom of QVC’s maternal mode of marketing, which “has it roots in something very deep and positive, the affirmation of life; this mode is abused for the selling of products:”

‘It’s great, it’s wonderful, I love it, it’s terrific.’ Those are the words. It’s much more hyper than that, and much more varied, but that’s what said over and over again. Finally this refers to what a mother says to a child: ‘You’re great, you’re wonderful, it’s wonderful.’ Even if the bombs are dropping, a mother says to a child, ‘It’s gonna be all right, it’s terrific, you’re terrific.’ I mean that’s what’s supposed to happen, and here it’s being done for jewelry…

Here’s what Trow actually “discerned” as Joan Rivers danced around QVC’s feminized Hustle,

Joan, by my perception, has lost the heart for all that. She’s seen too many pairs of earrings, she can’t quite stand to say that this twenty-first pair is new, great, and so forth, she perhaps has seen some really good earrings somewhere. But then the pansy pins came on, and she suddenly found a way to get into it, and she said, ‘Does anyone know where the word pansy came from? It has to do with pense-moi, ‘think of me.’…She kept on saying it over and over again. ‘Pense-moi, pense-moi, pense-moi,' and it was extraordinarily poignant, and a little crazy. It seemed to me that as she was saying it, she was saying, ‘Please think about me, please think about me, please think about me, I’m in trouble here.’

The troubles of sell-outs may not seem all that pressing in a post-9/11 era. But we can’t just give them away. Trow’s concern for the depths of the seemingly shallow must be ours unless we’re content to see American culture trumped by the Market. And that’s why it was unforgivable when Trow’s New York Times obituary left off with a quote from one of his associates that implied he was (finally) a walking anachronism:

His world was that of Mr. Shawn and The New Yorker; of Diana Vreeland, who could be his companion at dinner. And the rest of the world was onto something new.

It was something like a lie for the paper of record to offer that as its final word on Trow. While he couldn’t always resist Golden Age-ism, he tried to comprehend what Brecht called “the bad new days.” A reference that’s apt because Brecht was the Man for Tim Mayer whose own concept of American theatre influenced Trow’s literary experiments. Trow was an “extreme” writer (as Robert Gottlieb has said) who cultivated his own sort of alienation effects; he wanted to make you think before you weep. (Which is why he was a matchless critic of tv’s false intimacies.)

His formalist instincts were mixed up with his self-protective ones. He learned to be icy early because he was easily carried away. Looking back to 1956 in My Pilgrim’s Progress he saw himself lying on his bed in Cos Cob, Connecticut listening to his record-player:

There was only one song that I wanted to listen to, and it was ‘Love Me’ by Elvis Presley, and the lyric, of course, is ‘Treat me like fool, treat me mean and cruel, but love me,’ and I played it over and over and over, hoping my father would hear.

Trow was, in fact, an “emotion man” (to quote another culture critic of his era). Mourning the early death – and wasted talent – of his friend Mayer, he once claimed “I survived because I have known since I was seven years old how a newspaper is made.” Nobody’s fool – he found his life’s work in journalism though he vowed never to be a news junkie: “I never invest myself in a news story. In that I will be different from you.” Yet Trow believed journalism could be an honorable profession: “Journalists ought to make themselves into a prideful guild. (The Newspaper Guild used to stand for a little something.)”

I once assumed the journalist (and editor) Ellis Willis – Trow’s former colleague at The New Yorker – would approve of his First essay on Dan Rather and the decline of Network News. After all, Willis was a prideful pro too. And she was fascinated by what’s news now. But a whiff of Trow’s longing for the Lost WASP Patriarchy was enough to put her off. Willis had little use for old boy’s Networks and Guilds (notwithstanding their occasional acts of disinterested stewardship or “objective” journalism). She would’ve sympathized with the stance taken by the vulgar Trovian:

The old boys club had to be blown up. It had to be. And if it had to be, then the resulting world, a world of more equalized life chances and stiffer competition, would of course result in less continuity, more yuppie striving, and a more vulgarized pop culture. Like many jeremiads, Within the Context of No Context is a cost-benefit analysis in which the benefits have conveniently been left out.

I should’ve guessed Trow’s old boy’s math would never add up for a radical feminist like Willis. Still, thinking back on their work (after they died last fall) I was struck by the strength of their shared conviction that culture matters. Willis may have talked up irruption, while Trow promoted protection, but both repeatedly insisted culture was foundational, not super-structural. They’d learned that in the 60s. And they were both willing to invest themselves in the story of (at least) one 60’s cultural avatar long after that decade. Janis Joplin lived large in Willis’ imagination. And I think she would have agreed with Trow’s line on the Hollywood biopic about Janis, The Rose, which starred Bette Midler:

There is no understanding in the movie as to who Janis Joplin really was…You get to think that Janis Joplin’s energy in some way resembled Bette Midler’s, which it in no way did. Not possible for one second for Bette Midler to approach the ferocity, the wish for death, and the wish for total validity and authenticity, within the context of something like madness, that Janis Joplin possessed…Janis was someone who fought demons every single day of her life, and won a lot of the time, and in the process of winning destroyed a lot. Not a simple entertainer by any means.


Another not-so-simple 60’s entertainer attended that spring Tribute to Trow. Lou Reed watched some of the event, which was held in his partner’s loft. He wasn’t there as a force of creative destruction – or any other kind. He seemed relatively at ease among Trow’s genteel friends, listening to their testimonials and to the taped voice of Trow who happened to be explaining to a radio interviewer how/when Mick Jagger’s lifestyle had begun to seem more compelling than the Rolling Stones’ music. It was a conversation that might have spoken directly to Reed, but I couldn’t tell if he was trying to hear it. In any case, the scene in that elegant West Village setting with the nice view of the Hudson seemed a long way from Reed’s Coney Island Baby or Street Hassle, not to mention “Heroin.” (Though maybe it was closer to the Factory than you might think.)

There’s no way to tell how much of the Trow Tribute Lou Reed was taking in. Or what the more exclusively literary types in the room made of the presence of the pop artist (formerly known as “rock and roll animal”). But it put me in mind of Trow’s own meditations on the culture-wide failure to process the 60’s. His reflection on the phenomenon of Love Story is exemplary here. He took that story and its author to task for passing on the 60s, which Trow believed were “so hard to witness and to understand.”

Erich Segal knew better, he was at Harvard, his friends were people who were living a very different way from this template story of Ali MacGraw and whoever it was. It was cynical of him to write this story, but he wrote it, it worked, it was big hit, and introduced that lovely thing of love meaning never having to say – whatever it is, the meretricious slogan of the moment. But it was a step into telling people they still lived in a recognizable world, and that it all had been processed, when in fact, it hadn’t been.

Trow was attracted to First of the Month back in the day because our crew was still trying to make sense of the 60s without getting stuck on the decade. He also recognized First’s tabloid template meant we weren’t content to speak low to the fine and pretty. Trow took the time to write a long letter with advice about how to launch First. While he pointed us toward certain cultural figures he’d worked and partied with in the 70s, he cautioned us against reviving “the salon mixte” from those years. (Not to worry; First was/is too marginal to become anyone’s next big thing.) His warning about the dangers of engendering a “New Social Energy” made us more willing to cop to our own fantasies on that front, though we also took it as a goof because Trow’s flows seemed high and far off First’s base.

When I reread his letter a few months back, his projections still seemed off, of course, but his notion that our crew might catch a wave of social energy reminded me it was past time for a First party. So we had one in Chinatown. It was fun (putting it mildly).

Trow’s name came up during our dinner conversation and the response to his legacy wasn’t all positive. Aware that Trow’s closest friends were organizing their Tribute to him, I wondered if he would have belonged at our party. By all accounts, he was a social sort who enjoyed sparking people. (He once told a friend you should never talk to anyone at a cocktail party for more than 4 minutes.) Yet he was used to high living not hanging out in a cheap Chinese restaurant. No-one in Diana Vreeland’s class was chowing down at Shin Kee. That reminded me, though, of a line of Vreeland’s that Trow liked to quote. She told him “the eye must travel.” As I listened to our table talk in Chinatown, it occurred to me there’s more than one kind of worldliness. First’s partiers assumed “the ear must travel.” We were all products of Rock and Roll’s Big Bang and we still followed the American roots musics that flowed under Rock back to sources in the cultures of Black Atlantic people and country folks. Trow would have been ok with us (I concluded) because his ear traveled too.

The first thing of his I recall reading was an evocation of Ahmet Ertegun crossing a wide open field at midnight in search of a down home joint where Professor Longhair – a fount of New Orleans piano grooves – was about to rock and roll him away. “Wonder was the grace of the country,” Trow wrote at the top of Within the Context of No Context and he was well aware American music had been vector of wonder.

We all know what it’s like to miss New Orleans. Especially now. But anyone who’s paid attention to the processing of American pop music in recent decades has had multiple causes for depression. Trow wrote up one of his pop downers in My Pilgrim’s Progress when he described how Garth Brooks played New York City with a little help from Billy Joel. It’s not hard to imagine why Trow might give up on this country and move to Italy after seeing New Yorkers give it up to those two American idols. Trow recalled his disgust when Brooks “began to schmooze about his personal feelings in the song he sings called ‘The Dance,’ which is about the dance of human life and all its complexity and so forth and so on…”

I thought well you haven’t danced anywhere near Merle Haggard, and until you have, I don’t want to hear that particular story from you. I mean, Merle Haggard is a very great American, and he’s certainly danced and danced and danced, and yet we’ve never had a song from him about how he’s reached some final reconciliation with life, because Haggard, having experienced so much, would be too modest and too repulsed by bunk to ever to do such a thing.

Hag’s latest stuff probably isn’t the perfect antithesis to pop music’s bunk artists. But there are other newish country songs that sing you back home. When my own dad was feeling low about America in the Age of Bush, I played him Alan Jackson’s “Drive.” That song might have moved Trow too. And I just came across another potential cure for American jitters. Kenny Rodgers’ “I Can’t Unlove You” makes a strong three minute case for this country precisely because the singer is so disreputable. There’s probably a spot in hell waiting for him not far from circles reserved for Billie (“We Didn’t Start the Fire”) Joel and that other dancing oaf. But “I Can’t Unlove You” transcends the singer. It’s the song’s undeniable melody and unobvious lyric that testify to the value of country music’s traditions (even in the absence of individual talent up front).

My little boy requests “I Can’t Unlove You” and I’ll allow I’m a little conflicted about that. (But at least it’s not “Dixie,” which he likes too…you gottta know when to fold ‘em.) While it’s way strange for me to imagine Kenny Rogers making the soundtrack of my son’s childhood, wonder is the grace of the country. Which brings me back to George Trow. Over the last few years I sent notes and copies of First to him through his publisher since he no longer had a permanent address. But now I wish I’d sent him a CD with “I Can’t Unlove You.” Who knows? If Trow had heard that song, he might have stopped running from America.


1 George Metcalf in Slate.

2 “Remember Oprah, It’s all about the Benjamins.”

From June, 2007