Welcome to the first installment of Musicians And Their Favorite Books. Every month I feature a NYC musician who writes about one of their favorite books and how it influences their work. I also take a photo of the artist with their own copy of the book.
Jonathan Ben-Menachem is the bass player of Whitewash, whose latest album Shibboleth is out now on Sad Cactus Records. He is also the mastermind behind No Smoking Media. The following piece is in his own words.
Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
I first came into contact with Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in my senior year of high school. My AP English Lit teacher had a tradition where the seniors would read Mason & Dixon, Pynchon’s other great encyclopedic work of fiction, but since he was retiring that year he decided to screw with us and give us a much weirder/more difficult read.
It’s hard to introduce this work in only a few words – if I had to compare it to something else, it would most likely be Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, which roughly translates to “total work of art.” Gravity’s Rainbow is not merely a work of fiction: it also exists as a volume of page-by-page illustrations which act as a companion to reading (actually all drawn by a pornstar – buy it here), and it includes intertextual references to things which aren’t really traditional ‘texts’ at all (early 1900s films, statistical formulas, cultural tropes, limericks, and so on).
The plot centers around the creation and use of the German V2 rocket (which led to space travel) and the Battle of Britain. The main character, Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, is a victim of infantile psychological experimentation who finds himself used by various nationalistic and scientific entities over the course of his life. Basically, as an infant, he’s conditioned to be sexually stimulated by certain materials which are later involved in the construction of V2 rockets, and when he matures, his penis is intrinsically linked to the V2 rocket impacts (the ‘hook’ of the novel is that he keeps track of his sexual exploits with a date-and-time map that has the exact same statistical distribution as every single V2 rocket impact – so, does his dick call the rockets, or are the rockets making him aroused?).
The entirety of the 800-page plot is also based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, matching the elevation and eventual impact of the spiritual (literally God-like, worshipped) “00000” V2 rocket – the myriad of plot arcs and intertextualities makes Gravity’s Rainbow more than just a novel, a work that can probably never be fully understood.
In any case, this relates to Whitewash because we actually got our band name (in part) from flipping through the pages of the book. It’s included in a small lyric poem that a military official sings to himself (“whiter than the whitewash on the wall”) as he psychologically prepares himself to be sexually dominated by another military hiree.
I’m actually the only guy in the band who’s read the book (Sam Thornton [lead guitarist] found “whitewash” at random flipping through its pages), but I’m qualified to say that the intertextuality and reluctance to stay in just one artistic medium match our style pretty poignantly. It also incorporates our knack for choosing nontraditional references in music – it’s not too revolutionary to choose literary or theoretical song titles (the meaninglessness of “Logocenter,” the existential affirmation of “Saudade”), but many of our references span the weird boundary between personal experience and the stuff we think relates to our personal experience. You’ve only seen a little bit of this if you’re familiar with our work to date (see: “Reagan’s Death Star“), but our upcoming album(s) will feature a lot more obscure sample work and sound collaging that matches the sort of cinematic-yet-referential tone of Gravity’s Rainbow.
A point of difference, perhaps, is that we all find Wagner pretty effin’ dumb as far as the Gesamtkunstwerk is concerned, and we want to incorporate more contemporary hip-hop culture / less dead white male references.
Gravity’s Rainbow is important to me as an artist because it’s always a humbling re-read. I read (most of) it on a yearly basis, and every time it’s revisited I become aware of how much I have (or haven’t) learned that year. That’s right – one book is an effective litmus test of my artistic knowledge, just because it has THAT MANY references and high-falutin’ theoretical goodness. I want to make art that does the same thing – maybe not ‘complete work of art opus magnum’ levels of intensity, but at least a work that people will want to revisit when it’s not ‘hip and trendy.’ The music industry is full of buzz bands who will be forgotten in six months – I don’t want Whitewash to be that. I would rather have fewer fans who are truly hardcore than ten times as many fans who just like our singles and not our deep cuts.
Gravity’s Rainbow is so rich in meanings (there’s a real excess of significance) that an artist was able to illustrate each and every page and have that be an independent work which makes sense even without the novel as a companion read. I want people to be able to make individual art pieces that correlate with our work just as much (or more) as I want them to sing along to our hooky choruses. Maybe that’s a lot to ask without being signed to like Sub Pop, though…
please enjoy this humorous Matt Groening reference.
(Pynchon is a hermit 8~) )
You can find Whitewash via:
Upcoming Whitewash NYC shows:
9/5 Elvis Guesthouse (Raccoon Fighter, Shana Falana)
9/15 Baby’s All Right (Diane Coffee, the Lemon Twigs)
9/25 Don Pedro’s (God Tiny, Living Hour, Frog)