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CARPE LIBRUM: Inside the life of celebrity memoir

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Two celebrity memoirs prove to be interesting but there’s a drastic difference in composition between Joan Baez’s “And A Voice to Sing With” and Anthony Rapp’s “Without You.”

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

And A Voice to Sing With: A Memoir
Plume, 1987, pgs. 378
By Joan Baez

With Out You: A Memoir of Love, Loss and the Musical Rent
Simon & Schuster, 2006, pgs. 309  By Anthony Rapp
Some artists have talents that cross multiple modalities. Local writer Clyde Edgerton is a gifted novelist, musician and visual artist. Some artists really excel in one field and fail at others. Why do the gods bless some people with myriad talents but little success in a chosen field, while others soar to great heights yet yearn for different achievements? This is a question for the ages. But I found myself reading two very different performance memoirs and contemplating the striking differences between them.

My week began with Joan Baez’s  memoir, “And A Voice To Sing With.” I pick up memoirs by famous people for salacious and intimate details of their lives with other famous people. What was daily life with Bob Dylan like before he was “Dylan”? What are the real stories behind famous songs that make up the sound track of one’s life? Baez leads her readers through a fairly ordinary childhood—except her father was a research scientist during the nuclear age. His crisis of conscience led the family to a Quaker meeting.

a-voiceIf anyone is at all familiar with Joan Baez and her life’s work, the Quaker influence of her early life shines through clearly from her refusal to pay taxes that fund war and armaments, to her work with Amnesty International and the Civil Rights Movement. Baez is mesmerizing: she has the voice of an angel, a musical career that spans decades and encompasses the early folk scene in the Village, Woodstock, Live Aid, marching with Dr. King, and draft resistance. She literally walks with kings and farmers alike, and if asked about her proudest accomplishment, she will name her son, Gabe.

Apparently early in life she didn’t have a notable singing voice, but she taught herself to sing in the shower and developed a sound that would make her famous. There are several aspects to her book that make it notable: First, she does tell the wonderful “inside-the-life-of-celebrity” stories people want to hear whether that celebrity is Odetta, Abbie Hoffman, Coretta Scott King, or Leach Walesa. But her skill as a songwriter bleeds over into prose that is simple, straightforward and beautiful. “My Public image was clear: a girl, a guitar, her songs, and a message.”

I wish we could reprint all of chapter five (it is only two pages) “To Love and Music” about Woodstock (copyright law and length both make that not viable). It opens: “Woodstock was drugs and sex and rock and roll.” She tells about taking her mother to Woodstock and ends:

“Woodstock, in all its mud and glory belonged to the sixties, that outrageous, longed for, romanticized, lusted after, tragic, insane, bearded and bejeweled epoch. It is over and will never return. I do not miss it. But sometimes I resent the eighties.”
In case anyone forgot, Baez was six months pregnant at Woodstock and her husband, David Harris, was in prison for draft resistance.

“Once the prosecutor asked him if there had been anything obstructing his way into the induction center,” Baez writes. “Yes, David, I thought, closing my eyes. Yes David, you were. You were obstructing your own way.”

Clear, principled action are the hallmarks of her life and work—including joining a human rights delegation to North Vietnam in 1972, landing her in the middle of the Christmas bombing. She brought a tape recorder with her, and from 15 hours of recorded material, combined with her own writing, produced the album “Where Are You Now, My Son.” It was her gift to the Vietnamese people and prayer of thanks for survival.

It is captivating, powerful, stunning writing and covers 40 fascinating years of thoughtful action. I struggle daily to live my beliefs; Baez recounts with simple clarity she would not play segregated venues or appear on TV shows Pete Seeger (then black-listed) wasn’t invited to perform on. And up until 2008, she did not endorse politicians because the causes were bigger than individual elections.

withoutyouBy contrast, Anthony Rapp’s memoir falls short of the mark. What makes it interesting is the inside look at the development of one of the pivotal moments in theatre history: the debut of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.” Rapp originated the role of Mark and journeys from the first audition forward in the process. So the reader can meet Larson, who famously died after final dress and tech rehearsal—he never got to see the show open. Through Rapp’s book, we can see Larson in full creative bloom, shaping and sculpting the script and libretto. Rapp recounts lyrics that did not make it to the final script, and we have a chance to see the musical that changed the conversation about AIDS, life, death, love, and survival grow from a rehearsal concept to the cultural phenomenon that spawned a generation of performers and composers.

Rapp is a gifted singer and actor, but his writing is at best clunky. At worst it reads like a middle-school essay. But the material is so fascinating that I for one was willing to forge ahead. Would I read anything else? Probably not. But for fleeting glimpses into a world I can never fully touch, let alone inhabit (but has impacted my own small life tremendously), it is a cherished delight.

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