From the archive
Bookforum: You’ve written a little about TV. Do you watch much TV?
JJS: Not anymore. My wife gets mad at me because that was a thing we used to do together, but it’s harder for me to deal with it now.
Bookforum: What do you mean?
JJS: It’s gotten so ugly. The reality stuff isn’t as fun as it used to be. It all feels very Roman to me now, you know.
JJS: Yeah, the Republic is disintegrating. [Laughter.] I mean, there’s just no way that a society that projects that morality on a nightly basis can keep it together much longer.
Bookforum: Speaking of which, have you been following the Republican presidential race?
JJS: Only from a distance. I really like to read everything that Kevin Baker writes about politics. He’s better known as a writer of historical novels, but he has this blog, The Ice House Gang, so I’ve followed it a little bit through that. But I’ve been waiting to hear a voice that didn’t seem to be emanating from inside the crop circle of insanity that has become the right wing of the Republican party. If I could hear somebody who actually seemed to be speaking from outside of that, and in a countervailing way, I would probably not end up voting for them, but I would certainly listen.
Bookforum: How has all the research you’ve done on American history figured into your thinking about the Tea Party?
JJS: Well, it’s been kind of a candy store because I’m really into questions about where on the spectrum of eighteenthy century thinking and Enlightenment thinking does the American Revolution really lie as a political experiment—what are the ideals at the center of it, and are we just paying them lip service at this point? I mean, these are not sophisticated questions—they’re the kinds of questions you ask your history teacher in high school—but they’re still the ones that preoccupy me, and so the whole Tea Party movement is fun in that way because they are, of course, really into the Revolution and dressing up like Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin and manipulating those symbols.
So far it seems like underestimating them has been a mistake, and in my Tea Party piece, I wanted more than anything to try to capture that ambivalence, the feeling of that historical moment when nobody was totally sure if the Tea Party was the kind of joke that was going to be ephemeral, or if it was an actual force. Seems like you’d have to go with the latter view now, at least insofar as the Republican Party has been smart about using it as a prong to get things done […]
JJS: Music means more to me than almost anything. I remember maybe ten years ago when Bob Dylan gave an interview—I think it was in Time magazine—and he said that all his life he had been searching for religion, and he thought that songs were something you used to get at the truth of religion, but then, at a certain point, he realized that the music was his religion. And I remember really resonating with that statement and feeling like it wasn’t a pretentious sort of pronouncement—it was a really good technical description of something. Early blues recordings, prewar blues, or Jamaican music in general, deeply spiritual things happen in that music. I feel like one of the only places in my life where I still use the word spiritual and don’t feel like a total dweeb is when talking about that music. It’s just in contact with something.
Bookforum: What was being in Jamaica and writing the Bunny Wailer essay like?
JJS: Getting to meet him was just pure fantasy fulfillment. And then the fun of having such a clear-cut assignment in front of you. Not journalistically speaking, but in an argumentative sense. There was this thing to explain: what is it about Jamaican music? You listen to certain things over the years, and a lot of stuff fades away, but there’s other stuff that actually grows in depth and grows in interest. That’s what happened for me with the Jamaican stuff, and I wanted to know why. Pieces always start like that for me. I think about a question and go, “Oh yeah, it’s kind of because this, it’s kind of because that,” and then I call bullshit on myself. One of the things that I did figure out, or at least one of the things that came to seem relevant to me when I was over there trying to find Bunny, was that the whole spiritual music/Devil’s music thing that was so important in American pop happened in a totally different way in Jamaica. Instead, Rastafarianism sort of seized the pop record industry as it started taking off in Jamaica in the 1950s. So you have this religious movement seizing pop, and using it to define itself, to pray, to bring people together, and that’s a totally different set of conditions than what you had in the States. It led to a pop style that has a kind of gospel expansiveness to it, and melodically speaking, has the boldness of its own simplicity and clarity. That’s just really hard to get to if you’re a secular songwriter in the U.S. Now there might be some bullshit in that, but I think there’s also something true in it, and I wanted to poke at it a little. Bunny was the person to shed light on it.
Bookforum: It sounds like you’re finding certain American themes, or themes that are deeply resonant within America, abroad. Is that a fair statement?
JJS: It’s totally fair, and it’s nowhere is it more relevant than in the case of that piece, where one of things I had to do in order to write about Bunny was to write about the political and cultural situation in Kingston right now, and that has a lot to do with garrisonism, this bizarre political system they have in Jamaica. I needed to learn the history of that; I needed to read as much as I could about the experience of living under that system and, the more I learned about it, the more it starting slapping me upside the head as an obvious and meaningful analogy for what was happening in the States, and the ramping up of mindless dualism in American culture.
Bookforum: What do you mean by that?
JJS: Well, the notion that we don’t like the people on the other side of some line. As opposed to the idea of every individual being an unparaphrasable complexity of political opinions and influences, instead they’re just red or blue. Red/blue is just garrisonism, and the way it’s used to suppress actual, intelligent discussion about what’s happening and where we ought to be headed is classic garrisonism. So, you know, you’re halfway into writing and reporting a piece like that, and you realize that there is this metaphorical thing going on, and you haven’t insisted on it, you haven’t forced it: it bubbled up out of the material. That’s when you can trust it, I think, and go with it. That’s what I mean when I say that when I stick with what I’m helpless not to write, the writing gets better. Better being a relative term in this case, of course.