Welcome back to the stacks. It’s Aquarium Drunkard’s Book Club, our monthly gathering of recent (or not so recent) recommended reading. In this month’s stack: tales of aliens in upstate New York, the life and times of American folklorist Harry Smith, yet another (worthy) Dylan tome and the paranoid end of the 1970s. Your librarians are Justin Gage, Scott Bunn, Tyler Wilcox, and Jarrod Annis.
Cosmic Scholar: The Life and Times of Harry Smith, by John Szwed: To make sense of Harry Everett Smith is to sift through the detritus of his life the same way Smith himself scoured the gutters and dustbins of America in search of a unified theory of culture (however inherently flawed). It’s no mean feat, especially if you’re aiming to fit it between the covers of a book, but John Szwed does just that in Cosmic Scholar, and that in itself is reason enough to have it on the bookshelf.
An irascible and eccentric polymath subsisting on weed, amphetamines, and lots of milk, Harry Smith was a guiding force of every aspect of American counterculture for nearly half a century. His influence still resonates in the realms of film and music, primarily through his foundational 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. Cosmic Scholar is the first proper attempt to contextualize Smith’s life and work as such, which is quite a task, considering that Smith was notoriously unreliable when it came to matters of his life. He left behind virtually no biographical paper trail and even Smith’s body of work is subject to myth and speculation––much of it discarded by landlords evicting the usually penniless Smith, or destroyed by Harry’s own hand during his volatile fits of rage.
Mapping out a chronology of the phases and avenues of Smith’s work, Szwed guides readers through the esoteric spaces Smith inhabited at the intersections of visual art, film, music, anthropology, folklore, and various nooks and crannies of the occult. Perhaps most telling is the scene of Smith’s memorial, attended by a who’s-who of heavies in underground and avant-garde art circles––all virtually unaware of their mutual connection to Smith. This only makes Cosmic Scholar all the more astounding as a work of biography, as Szwed’s expert hand painstakingly stitches together the various strands of Smith’s life’s work into a singularly bizarre and wondrous tapestry.
*For interested parties, a fuller view of Smith can be gleaned by reading Cosmic Scholar in conjunction with the perpetually scarce (and pricey) collection of interviews with Smith, Think of the Self Speaking, and Harry Smith: American Magus, which we mentioned in the Book Club a little while back. | j annis
Agents of Chaos: Thomas King Forçade, High Times, and the Paranoid End of the 1970s by Sean Howe: A stranger-than-fiction countercultural saga! In Agents of Chaos, Sean Howe uncovers the well-nigh unbelievable story of Thomas Forcade, best known as the founder of High Times magazine — but, as the writer deftly illustrates, so much more. Revolutionary firestarter, alt-press pioneer, drug-runner, Hippie/Yippie/Zippie … possible CIA agent provocateur? Virtually every page of this book is packed with wild tales, Howe’s intrepid detective work bringing an impossibly shadowy scene into the light. | t wilcox
Bob Dylan: Mixing Up the Medicine, written and edited by Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel: Imagine walking through the storage facility of Charles Foster Kane’s art collection in Citizen Kane, only instead of sculptures from antiquity or paintings by Dutch masters, it’s items related to your favorite musician. A few years ago, the Bob Dylan Center opened in Tulsa as the public-facing venue for the Bob Dylan Archive. Davidson and Fishel both work for the Archive, and this new book is a way for Dylan obsessives — if you’re reading Aquarium Drunkard, you either identify as one or have a friend or loved one who is — with the opportunity to see this collection up close without having to travel to Oklahoma. Mixing Up the Medicine features handwritten and typed lyrics of classic and obscure Dylan songs, previously unseen photographs of the man in action, sketches and working drafts of album art, and other ephemera. Reading the book is an act of discovery, finding a new favorite uncovered object and then immediately changing preference upon turning the page. Previously unknown items include an early draft of “Things Have Changed” on the back of a fax from Leonard Cohen, the lyrics to an unrecorded song called “I’m Cold,” or at least 100 other possible choices. Besides the objects and the now-familiar story of Dylan’s life, the book also features essays about items from the Archive by an assemblage of writers, artists, and musicians, including Lucy Sante, Greil Marcus, Amanda Petrusich, Richard Hell, Alex Ross, Michael Ondaatje, Greg Tate, Ed Ruscha, and Alan Licht, to name only a few. Lee Ranaldo’s essay titled “I Just Wanna See It” best encapsulates the mission of the Archive as well as Mixing Up the Medicine. The piece details his desire to view and listen to the first recording that Dylan ever did as a teen. Visiting the Center and reading the book gives the Dylan ultrafans an heretofore unattainable glimpse into his process and life as a writer, poet, artist, performer and public figure. | s bunn
Communion, by Whitley Streiber: Whitley Streiber’s unsettling account of his alleged December 26, 1985 abduction is now available via audiobook. Published in 1987, Communion quickly became a zeitgeist hit, landing on the New York Times best seller list for a solid six months. For better or worse, its publication forever changed the author’s life. Streiber, who made his living prior to the event as a horror novelist and screenwriter, imbues his tale with not only terror but subtle nuance. Set at his family’s idyllic cabin in upstate New York, Communion is more than just another close encounters yarn, as the author makes no claim to understand who (or what) these beings are. Instead, the book wrestles with the after effects of his experience. To say any more would be a disservice to the reader, but if this type of thing floats your boat, ignore the (rightfully panned) 1989 feature film, and listen to this newly minted audio book, as narrated by the author himself. And, hey, even if it’s entirely bullshit, it’s still a fun read. | j gage