‘Pulphead’ Tours the Geography of American Culture

BY Annie Strother  November 2, 2011 at 11:03 AM EST

Macmillan John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essays have been appearing steadily over the past decade, addressing music, politics and other arteries of American popular culture. A new collection, “Pulphead,” features 14 of these pieces, which form a patchwork image of Americana.

Blues music, Axl Rose, Bunny Wailer, as well family members and old mentors populate both the essays and the national landscapes that fascinate Sullivan. This eye for geography and its kaleidoscope of identities brings the reader close to other moments, ones of national confusion surrounding the death of Michael Jackson, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the rise of the Tea Party movement. Sullivan frames these events through narration that varies in rhetoric and style, but is consistent in its perspective, personality and empathy.

Sullivan contributes writing to The New York Times Magazine and GQ, and is the southern editor of The Paris Review. We recently talked by phone about his new book.

What was the period of time over which you wrote the essays in the collection?

I think they span about 12 years. The first one’s from 1999, and the last one’s from this year. In fact the last one to be published was just published, this One Tree Hill piece, an essay about having our house be a location on this teen show, “One Tree Hill,” which turned out to be a pretty disorienting experience.

In what sense?

You were moving back and forth between realities. They would move us out of the house and into a Hilton downtown in Wilmington [North Carolina]. And all these crazy things were happening at the house in the meantime, which we would only see on the show many months later. So there was a sort of metaphysical weirdness to the whole experience, which was one of the reasons we finally got out of it.

What do you think unifies these essays as a collection?

I think that’s a natural question, because they’re not as unified thematically as pieces in an essay collection would normally be. But they’re unified in the sense that I think they all represent little rooms in the house, which is the sensibility of the narrator. That’s where their coherence comes from for me. It’s the same person speaking in all of them and excavating different obsessions. My hope is that that will produce some kind of synthesis in the reader’s mind.

You sometimes move into a first-person plural narration, and while there’s a cohesive sense of voice, at the same time the tone and the rhetoric often changes pretty significantly between essays. How did you evaluate your own authorial role within these essays?

That’s something I give a lot of thought to. The appropriateness of those different voices to the moment, which isn’t to say that I don’t get it wrong on a regular basis. I think the most conspicuous example is probably the [essay about the] Tea Party march, where I wrote it in this “we” voice, a collective voice. And for some reason it felt more honest. I felt like I was able to get a little bit closer to what the real spirit of that march had been because I had marched along with them, and I was talking to various people along the way as a journalist, but not being actively critical of what I saw. And the trick there became to do that voice in a way that — I didn’t want to be pulling a trick on the reader, and seeming to be more sympathetic to what was going on there than I actually was. And I think in the end that came off, I don’t think anybody reads that piece and thinks, “How dare he say ‘we’ when in the end he’s going to repudiate all the things these people believe.”

I can’t account for it totally, I remember just liking the weirdness of the effect when I read it back. There was something about the uncertainty there. Uncertainty in the sense that it wasn’t totally clear why that was the voice being used. I felt like it kept me as a reader a little bit tense and little bit more open to the implications of what was going on there and what the different people were saying.

I was reading an interview earlier this week with a culture and media critic (McKenzie Wark) and he says that the moments that he seeks out to study are the moments of confusion in a media narrative at a particular time, where people at-large — the public and also journalists — are unsure of what’s happening. And after reading that I thought about that essay because it’s not the only one in your book that centers on cultural confusion, either in the early days of the Tea Party but also the weeks after Katrina or the death of Michael Jackson. How did you begin to approach writing about those topics at the times you were writing them?

I think it’s a very good description, those are the moments I seek out, too. For me it was just a more accurate reflection of the way I experience American pop culture, which is not in a very concisely opinionated way but more as a kind of bewilderment. And most people I know feel the same way. One of the things my job allows me to do is to get inside of that cyclone for a little while and watch that culture and media getting made.

One of the pieces that brought me closest to that didn’t end up in the book, it was a thing I wrote about Levi Johnston, one-time fiance of Sarah Palin’s daughter, Bristol. I went and spent some time with him up in Alaska. And here was a kid who in an almost Chauncey Gardiner way was existing at the center of these very important, momentous world events of which he had absolutely no comprehension and in which he had no interest really, but his life had been sucked up into this swirl. So for me he was a little bit metaphoric of all of us pop-culture consumers in that way, in the sense that these things had been forced on him. He hadn’t really chosen them.

I think that’s part of belonging to my generation, is that we just grew up in such a saturation of televised crap, that any discussion about, you know, high-low artistic categories becomes irrelevant because our minds are just inherently fragmented and fractured that way. And I do, I look for those little points of fracture. The blues piece is another example of that, where I try to talk about the pre-war blues as a “high form.”

There is this abstract sense of geography that emerges as you write about the cultural landscape and explicit geography also occupies an important role. You begin your profile of Axl Rose by describing the part of Indiana where he grew up. Are there places you are drawn to as a writer and how do you approach writing about them?

I do seem to have this overdeveloped sense of regionalism. Not just in the classic sense of North, South, East and West, but landscapes. I can remember as a kid driving down the road and seeing some particular vista from the car and feeling almost sick to my stomach, not able to explain the power that it seemed to have for me. So that was there before I was even able to think about it in a conscious way.

I also, in many different ways, grew up with the South as a problem. Because I wasn’t really from there, but that’s where my roots were. It became vivid to me in the way that something becomes vivid to you when you are outside it somehow. That was a dynamic that existed inside my own family, and it also existed geographically for us because my mom was one of the children who’d left home and gone north. So I don’t think of myself as a regional writer because when I hear that I think that the writer being described is an embodiment somehow of that region, and I’m not an embodiment of any region. I think I’m sort of a nowhere person. And as a result, regionalism has become a real theme for me.

You frequently write about musicians, and I’ve read that you’re an amateur musician yourself.

True. With an emphasis on amateur.

When did you start writing about music? What is the chronology as far as your beginning to play music and writing about musicians?

I have a brother named Worth who was a big influence on me and my childhood. He’s just a pop-music savant and also a really good musician and was in bands. From the time that I turned 6 they were practicing in the basement. My mom is actually a good guitar player, too, so it was always there. And it’s not just that it was always there, but there was music criticism there, because that’s the way my brother is. He was interested in what made one thing better than another. His friends would come over with a Stryper record and he would have his R.E.M. record, and I would listen to their arguments over what was better. That was mother’s milk.

So I don’t know that it ever felt like a step or even a decision of any kind to start doing that myself. It was just writing down the kinds of things that were already buzzing around in my head. I was energized in that criticism by my own attempts to write songs, because it showed me how hard it is, which is a really useful thing. It also gave me a kind of visual, three-dimension model of the structures by which works of art are put together, and I think I started thinking that way about music before I ever did about writing. So that was helpful, I think, because I was able to carry forward, maybe, a little of what I’d learned in doing songwriting. I don’t know if I really did, but I like thinking about art that way, thinking about it structurally.

I saw a neat thing on the Internet where a guy had done these visual projections of different Bach pieces. He had translated all of the themes within the song into these arcs, and you really saw how coherent the structure of the song was. Sometimes I think we are suspicious that that stuff is a little overstated and that the whole business is more off-hand and random than that, but this was evidence that there really is this deep under-structure.

There is a challenge when you’re writing about performers in writing about them onstage versus offstage and blending technical discussions with a scene and what’s happening with an audience. How do you do your research when you’re writing about performers, and how do you weigh the interactive experience of being at a concert with other research?

I tend to completely immerse myself in whatever the thing is that I’m working on, and that extends even as far as turning my office into a little cave of Michael Jackson or Axl Rose or whatever the subject is. And I’m reading as much as I can about the subject, I’m ordering weird books from abe.com and trying to go at it like an octopus. I don’t turn down any potential avenue of information about the subject or point of view on the subject.

That reaches a moment of plateau, you hit a kind of saturation. That’s normally when I know it’s time to start writing the piece and making the hard choices, and that’s when the stuff you’re asking about probably comes into play. But normally by the time you’re actually making the decisions they no longer exist in that abstract way. They’re already wedded and weft into the story you’re trying to tell, which has its own momentum and has an almost organic existence at that point, even if it’s malformed. So the question of if you’re going to do a crowd scene or an intimate interview thing or a backstage thing, it’s going to be a strategic decision at that point. You’re in the midst of trying to say something. So the question becomes what is required there, what’s going to serve that?

So in the Axl case, I was following him around, them around — it was Guns N’ Roses without most of the original members — around Europe. And there was something about that concert in Bilbao. It captured something of the semi-tragic quality of Axl’s demise and the way these rock bands now carry on beyond the point of their rock ‘n’ roll-ness, so I ended up giving that more attention and making it a little narrative in and of itself, so the story of getting into that concert and watching it backstage and watching Axl perform from just a few feet away.

I had another question after reading the book. At several different points — either as I was reading a description of a concert, or some other, marginalia aspect of someone you were profiling- – I would think, I bet this guy loves YouTube, finds so many great videos on YouTube.

Yeah, YouTube, I mean, how can you not love it, it’s amazing. It’s a million different windows into these micro-obsessions. And it has also changed — in a way that goes beyond the cuteness of it — it has really changed the way music writing, to take just one example, happens, because of the range of what’s available there.

For instance, when I was working on the Bunny Wailer piece, I was listening to a lot of very early Jamaican ska records — actually before it had even congealed into ska — and trying to figure out where that very distinctive upbeat came from, not in a generalized mixing of African and American. I wanted to find out who played the first time that way, what was the moment. I ended up spending a few nights on this kind of armchair, spaceship journey. And what I found was that the YouTube discography that was available, the 45s that were available, just completely blew away any kind of printed encyclopedias of Jamaican records, or any of the lists available on the Internet. Because what you were seeing was collectors, lifelong collectors, of this music or those records, at their homes, in their moms’ basements or whatever, in England, and they’re just uploading these records to YouTube. It’s all but direct-from-source. So that ended up really helping me.

Another thing you’re noticing there is I don’t try to erase Internet research the way some people do. I’m not down on that. It’s a taste decision. Some people think it’s just kind of gauche to be talking too much about how did your research. But I sort of like to foreground the fact of seeking these things out on the Internet and of what you find, especially when it’s really special, because it’s another way to get in more texture of what our culture feels like right now. If you can’t describe what it’s like to spend a lot of time face-to-face with the Internet and that strange hum and that little cocoon you get into, then you’re missing this massive block of our lives right now.