In Boccaccio’s Decameron, a group of travellers take refuge from the Black Death in a villa outside Florence and share their stories. In a forthcoming modern-day take for the Covid era, by authors ranging from John Grisham to Outlander author Diana Gabaldon, the characters are a group of neighbours in a Manhattan tenement during the coronavirus pandemic.
Edited by Margaret Atwood, Fourteen Days: An Unauthorised Gathering is a collaborative novel dreamed up by author Douglas Preston to support other writers during the pandemic. With contributors also including Tess Gerritsen, Emma Donoghue, Celeste Ng, Dave Eggers and Angie Cruz, the book is set during the early days of the crisis, as a diverse group of neighbours left behind “when the rich flee the city” gather on the rooftop of their building and begin to share their stories.
“I came up with the germ of the idea when I read the Decameron as a teenager. I’m a collector of stories, and my initial thought was to cram all those stories into a frame narrative like the Decameron, in which a group of people retreat to an estate on the Maine coast during a pandemic. But when I tried to write it, the result was incoherent, so I quickly abandoned it,” said Preston. “Then a real pandemic arrived.”
Preston is president of the Authors Guild, and the writers’ body had been thinking about doing an anthology. “But anthologies can be rather dull,” Preston said. “It occurred to me that the Decameron idea could be brought into the present day, and involve New Yorkers stuck in a tenement during Covid, who gather on the roof every evening and start telling stories to pass the time – all kinds of stories: outrageous, poignant, funny, horrifying, tragic and creepy.”
Atwood agreed to act as editor, and invited, said Preston, “an eclectic group of writers, from romance novelists to Shakespearean scholars, from poets to mystery writers, from children’s authors to journalists to science fiction writers”, to contribute.
“I was astonished at how many authors loved the idea and wanted to participate,” said Preston. “They didn’t just write stories, but also created characters on the rooftop to tell them. In this way, Fourteen Days became a sort of protest against the balkanisation of contemporary literary culture. The result is entertaining and lively, not unlike stories being told at a dinner party, late in the evening, by guests of dubious sobriety. I don’t believe such an eclectic group of authors, or works, has ever been brought together like this before.”
Atwood said that the characters created by her contributors “have much to say to one another about life during the pandemic and even more about life in general, sometimes getting into discussions, debates or outright quarrels – and sometimes finding resolution in unexpected moments of empathy and connection”.
The writers remain anonymous until the end of the book, when it is revealed who has written which story. “Reading the book is a fun literary guessing game, but it has a deeper message too, being a thumb in the eye of literary celebrityhood and the fetish of the byline,” said Preston.
The Authors Guild has signed a deal with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US, and Vintage in the UK, to publish Fourteen Days in spring 2022. A “major” donation from Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins means that all contributors will receive an honorarium for the project, but all proceeds will go to the Authors Guild Foundation, which supports US writers; a recent survey found that authors reported losing 49% of their pre-pandemic income on average.
Music festivals: The unpredictable hell of Woodstock 1999: Burning stages, sexual abuse and a stream of feces | Culture
Woodstock 1999 began promising three days of “peace, love and music.” It ended with stages in flames, sound towers reduced to smithereens, tents razed to the ground, the press and performers running like hell, promoters barricaded in their offices, and thousands of hungover and exhausted young hooligans wallowing in a stream of feces. The San Francisco Examiner aptly called the event “the day live music died,” alluding to the day the music died, which Don McLean sang about in ‘American Pie.’ On August 3, Netflix released Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99, a documentary directed by Jamie Crawford. In three chapters of about 45 minutes each, Trainwreck offers a grisly post-mortem of what many consider one of the most chaotic music festivals in history.
Between Friday, July 23 and Sunday, July 25, 1999, in Rome, New York, a crime was committed against music, sanity, and decorum. If Crawford’s documentary makes anything clear, it’s that there were multiple perpetrators and even now none of them seem willing to take responsibility for the sorry episode.
Michael Lang, who created the Woodstock brand (and passed away last January), and John Scher, the event’s main promoter, were the first to pass the buck. Both had already been interviewed for Woodstock ‘99: Peace, Love and Rage, the HBO documentary that premiered last summer. In the earlier film, Lang and Scher blamed each other. In Trainwreck, both blamed the audience. They alleged that the generation of young people in the late 1990s was “irresponsible, aggressive and anarchic,” far removed from the original (1969) Woodstock’s spirit of peace and love. However, almost none of the other people who participated in the film support the pair’s self-serving version of events. The documentary’s other interviewees include journalists who covered the event, such as ABC News’s David Blaustein and MTV’s Ananda Lewis; performers Jewel, Fatboy Slim, Gavin Rossdale (the Bush frontman) and Jonathan Davis (Körn’s lead singer); production staff; public health officials, civil servants and Rome’s mayor; and a dozen attendees who were between 14 and 25 years old at the time.
The rain and the mud
The background of Woodstock ‘99 is clear. The 1969 iteration was an organizational disaster but an indisputable cultural success. The original Woodstock featured peace and love, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Grateful Dead, Santana, and hippies mobilizing against the Vietnam War. Michael Lang promoted all that in a display of quixotic countercultural entrepreneurship, but he took heavy losses and only recovered his investment over ten years later through sales of the film’s soundtrack and merchandise.
To coincide with the original Woodstock’s 25th anniversary, Lang and his new partner, Scher, launched the peaceful and artistically satisfying sequel to Woodstock in 1994, but they lost money hand over fist. In 1999, they conspired to capitalize on the Woodstock brand once and for all with a professionally conceived and executed event, minus the naïve idealism that had turned previous iterations into ruinous business.
The 1999 festival was held at Griffiss Air Force Base, a decommissioned military base just outside Rome, New York, over 100 miles from Woodstock’s original location. Griffiss was an unsuitable venue for a three-day music campout. It had a huge lot full of asphalt and unkempt grass, and the two main stages were nearly four kilometers apart.
That weekend, the state was experiencing an extreme heat wave; temperatures reached 102.2 F (39 C) degrees that felt like 104 F (40 C), slightly hotter than the heat wave the East Coast is facing this year. An estimated 400,000 people paraded through the ugly, inhospitable outdoor venue that weekend; on Saturday night alone, there were over 250,000 attendees.
From an alternative tribe to an angry mob
According to Heather, who attended the event when she was 14, many began to feel that they were being treated “like animals.” The exorbitant prices at which the commercial tents sold food and drink particularly upset attendees. They charged four dollars for a bottle of water (the equivalent of seven today) and between eight and 10 dollars for a slice of pizza, a sandwich, or a burrito (today, about 18 dollars), at an event that had prohibited bringing provisions from outside and for which concertgoers had paid 150 dollars (266 dollars today).
They were also indignant because of the woefully inadequate waste management service (“we woke up on Saturday morning in a sea of garbage that nobody picked up,” explains Heather), and the portable latrines, many of which burst after a few hours because of overuse, flooded the place with human waste and an indescribable stench.
Moreover, as one of the health service workers acknowledges in the documentary, the free fountain water that people used to quench their thirst, shower, and brush their teeth became unsafe to drink. Feces from the latrines contaminated that water. Not only was it undrinkable but in many cases mere contact with it caused skin rashes or lip and gum infections.
The festival lineup did not help improve the mood. Hard rock and nu-metal (a style that mixed hard rock and hip hop and briefly took young white Americans by storm) bands dominated the delirious program. Among those acts were Korn, Creed, Kid Rock, and Limp Bizkit, the big stars of the moment. Additionally, there were bands, such as Offspring, Metallica and Rage Against the Machine, whose abrasive sound and visceral discourse were totally alien to the first Woodstock’s spirit of peace and love. Thirty years ago, fans of Joe Cocker and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had happily and stoically faced the inconveniences and inclemency of a precariously organized mass event. Janis Joplin had even worried from the stage about their welfare and urged them to complain if they felt they were being treated disrespectfully (“you don’t have to go take anybody’s shit, man…So…if you’re getting more shit than you deserve, you know what to do about it, man.”).
However, as early as Friday, July 23, 1999, it was clear that fans of Korn’s charismatic lead singer, Jonathan Davis, shared with the hippies of three decades earlier only a propensity for public nudity. That concert, described by Ananda Lewis as “an insane explosion of energy,” already demonstrated that the Woodstock ‘99 crowd was not going to be a docile one. Indeed, they were vehement, aggressive young people who were quite willing to push the limits of an atmosphere of freedom and impunity and had little tolerance for the discomfort they experienced. The turning point came during the Limp Bizkit concert on Saturday night. As David Blaustein put it, “three different versions of Fred Durst [the band’s singer] competed on stage.” Durst’s instincts told him that something big was brewing among the crowd of ecstatic and hysterical kids, many of whom were naked. His common sense told him to try to lighten the mood. His ego urged him to become the revolt’s high priest. His ego won. Durst gave a frenetic performance, inciting his audience to give in to their rage and “break everything,” to not resign themselves “to the conformist shit that people like Alanis Morissette [also in the festival’s lineup] want to sell you.” They listened to him. Some audience members stormed and smashed a sound control tower.
Just off the stage, Durst gave an interview that was as brief as it was revealing:
-Have you ever seen anything like this before, Fred?
-No, I’ve never done anything like that.
-I suppose you’ve seen from the stage that there have been serious incidents.
-Well, yes, but that’s not our fault.
Hours later, the climate of violence moved to the electronic music tent where Norman Cook, better known as Fatboy Slim, was performing. At 2 a.m., a van suddenly drove onto the dance floor, forcing Cook to stop his performance. When security personnel gained control of the vehicle, they discovered a half-naked and drugged teenage girl inside who exhibited obvious signs of having been gang raped.
Illuminated by fire
But the real disaster occurred on Sunday night during the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, which ended the festival. It was triggered by an absurd decision that most interviewees attribute to Michael Lang: handing tens of thousands of lit candles to attendees and asking them to perform a spontaneous homage to the victims of the mass shooting at Columbine, which had taken place months before.
Instead, the audience used the candles to set fires. The band ignored the promoters, who’d suggested the band ask for calm on stage. Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer, told an increasingly overwhelmed John Scher that “they wouldn’t listen to me, I’m a musician, not a prophet.” The Red Hot Chili Peppers simply said that the fire at the foot of the stage reminded them of Apocalypse Now. Then, they decided to perform Jimi Hendrix’s Fire as the band’s encore, an inopportune choice.
In the barely three minutes that the song lasted, the three or four existing fires became a dozen. A pitched battle involving thousands of young people followed the concert. The pyromaniac impulse gave way to euphoric violence befitting the novel Lord of the Flies. They razed everything to the ground, leaving the venue in a state that one organizer likened to war-torn Bosnia. They destroyed the commercial tents, broke into cash registers, toppled sound towers, razed the hippie-inspired murals covering the security perimeter, and tried to force their way into the VIP area and the organizers’ offices.
Judy Berman of Time magazine notes that “they vented all the anger [they had] accumulated during three days of aggressive music, inflammatory messages and systematic mistreatment by incompetent and unscrupulous organizers.” Berman contends that “the festival was a complete trainwreck from the beginning; it assumed that 250,000 people could function for three days as a community capable of self-regulating, under conditions of total abandonment by the organizers, [and that] no serious incidents [would take place].”
The Guardian’s Rebecca Nicholson similarly interprets the events, adding that “Woodstock 99′s most sinister legacy is the sheer number of rapes and acts of sexual abuse and harassment that took place over those three days,” a consequence of both “poor security” and the “climate of impunity and toxic masculinity that pervaded the rock scene of the late 1990s.” The glorification of nudism, recreational shamelessness, and free love hid “an atrocious machismo and a nauseating lack of respect for women’s sexual freedom.” Ananda Lewis goes further to say that, to some extent, the Me Too movement is “a reaction to the culture of misogynistic abuse that was brought out, very forcefully, at Woodstock ‘99.” But perhaps Heather’s reflection is the farthest reaching. A teenager at the time, a couple of decades later she acknowledges that Woodstock was one of the best weekends of her life. But she also notes that “we don’t accept what happened any more … I’m glad that my daughters will never have to see that and think that is just the way it is.” The disastrous night that live music died 23 years ago still casts a long shadow.
Music history: Little Axel: The sad story of the boy who grew up with Leonard Cohen | Culture
For the past few years, Axel Joachim Jensen has lived in a small, wooden house with a porch, where he likes to go out for a smoke, and a window with a view of meadows and pine forests. The house is part of a psychiatric facility near Oslo (Norway), in a tranquil location where bird songs and chirps are the only sounds to be heard. Jensen lives there voluntarily.
The 63-year-old Jensen has been in and out of various mental health facilities since he turned 19. His mother was Marianne Ihlen, who was one of singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen’s great loves and muses. Jensen tells the story of growing up with Cohen in the documentary film, Little Axel, directed by Fabien Greenberg and Bård Kjøge Rønning. “It can be a bit difficult to remember the things you just want to forget… but now I live in a nice place,” he says in the film.
The documentary was filmed shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic and could only be released in Norway and the US, but plans are now underway for a broader, international distribution. One autumn morning, around the time of the film’s pre-pandemic premiere, Jensen agreed to take a car trip with me and his legal guardian to Larkollen, the coastal village in southeastern Norway where his mother was born.
Jensen was serious for most of the trip and said little, perhaps because of his medication. Little escapes his stony, piercing gaze, but his face occasionally lights up with a tender and childlike delight. A heavy-set man, he shaves his head and wears a scraggly, gray beard. He walks briskly around the town once we arrive, but once we are sitting at a bar, he seems indifferent to our conversation, his mind in some other place. “Cohen had a dark side,” he blurts out suddenly. “But I miss being with him.” He says little else. Behind his rough demeanor, I catch glimpses of a stunted sensibility, scattered thoughts, and a lifetime of inner pain.
His father was Axel Jensen, sometimes called the Jack Kerouac of Scandinavian literature. His other father – Leonard Cohen. Two prominent figures of the counterculture who set out to light the world on fire through literature and poetry. Nonconformists, tormented, narcissistic, mystical, thirsty for adventure and lust – the creative process was the only thing that gave meaning to their lives.
Little Axel, as he was nicknamed, arrived on the Greek island of Hydra with his parents when he was only four months old. A few days later, his father left Marianne for another woman. Marianne soon met Cohen, another artist living in the island’s bohemian, expatriate community, and so began one of the most romanticized relationships of recent times. Leonard and Marianne, doomed to failure from the beginning but immortalized in song – So Long, Marianne. It was a turbulent relationship, full of ups and downs, that lasted eight years. Cohen assumed the role of Axel’s stepfather, providing financial and emotional support to the child. Long after his breakup with Marianne, Cohen continued to help Jensen, sometimes taking him into his home.
Little Axel is the story of a life told through harsh, personal testimonies backed by melancholic guitar chords and punctuated with old photos, mostly taken in Hydra. Jensen grew up in a small colony of expatriates that disdained conventional mores and pursued an Arcadian dream of idyllic innocence tarnished by human flaws. Axel tells how he grew up in complete freedom, smoking and getting drunk at the age of seven. When he was nine, he traveled over 160 miles (260 km) across the seas to the southern Greek island of Crete accompanied only by his 12-year-old friend, Jeffery Brown. “They [our mothers] loved us, but they also loved their own freedom. We had to be adults at an early age,” said Brown. At 15, Jensen was smoking hashish and had tried LSD. The next year, he traveled alone to India, returning from the trip depressed and aggressive. Jensen moved to California to be with Cohen two years later when he was 18. It was the last time they would see each other – his 19th birthday was spent in a mental institution.
When he was seven, Jensen was dispatched to Summerhill, a British boarding school and bastion of anti-authoritarian education, and later to a strict, Swiss boarding school. His tender and desperate letters home to his mother and Cohen are heart-wrenching. Little Axel seems to lay most of the blame at Marianne Ihlen’s feet in this sad tale of neglect, lost souls, and festering wounds. Curiously, the film does not allude to a genetic predisposition as a potential cause of Jensen’s mental illness, even though his paternal grandmother had been committed to a mental institution, according to Torgrim Eggen, who authored a biography of Jensen’s father. In Axel, Eggen writes about frequent, aggressive outbursts by Jensen’s father who was once treated by David Cooper, the father of anti-psychiatry, and administered LSD in their first session. “You could say he was borderline [mentally ill],” writes Eggen.
“Hydra certainly took its toll on many of the foreign children who lived there, because of their unstructured, unfettered lives,” notes Helle V. Goldman, editor of When We Were Almost Young
(Tipota Press), an anthology of short memoirs about the island, where she also grew up. The children were witnesses to the lives led by the adults – to their infidelities, their parties, and their alcohol and drug use. Some say that Ihlen was too focused on her own life adventure, but Goldman believes that it’s all too easy to blame the young and lonely mother.
Leonard, Marianne, and Me (Backbeat Books), Judy Scott’s insightful and honest memoir about her days in Hydra during the sexual revolution of the drug-fueled 1970s, tells an anecdote about taking mescaline with young Axel who starts hallucinating that he can see Cohen’s ghost. Scott remembers Ihlen as a careless but devoted mother who ultimately blamed herself for her son’s suffering.
In August 1970, shortly before Cohen famously succeeded in calming a rowdy audience at a music festival on the Isle of Wight (UK), he received a letter from a patient at Henderson Hospital, a psychiatric facility near London, inviting him to give a concert there. “I hope you like So Long, Marianne,” said Cohen as soon as he walked in. For the next two hours, Cohen played for about 50 young patients at the facility, and told them about his fading relationship with his muse, about how he took 300 acid trips to write the song You Know Who I Am, how he wrote One of Us Cannot Be Wrong in a shabby hotel room while he tried to kick an amphetamine habit, and about the crushing loneliness he sometime felt.
That was the first of a series of concerts play by Cohen in various mental health facilities to wildly appreciative audiences. “When you are committed to a mental institution, voluntarily or not, you are admitting to a tremendous defeat. You’ve made a choice,” he would later say. “And I felt that my songs had elements of that choice, of that defeat, that these audiences would empathize with.”
Axel Jensen has started playing chess again, as he used to do with Leonard Cohen during those carefree days on Hydra – and still listens to his songs.
History: El Argar, the great society that mysteriously vanished | Culture
El Argar, an early Bronze Age culture that was based within modern Spain, is one of the great enigmas of Spanish and world archaeology. After emerging in 2200 BC, it disappeared 650 years later. Experts debate that it collapsed in 1550 BC either because of the depletion of the natural resource that sustained it – which resulted in the population fleeing or dying of starvation — or because of a massive popular revolt against the ruling class.
The Argaric culture was “the first society divided into classes in the Iberian Peninsula” – as defined by the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) – and the creator of the world’s first Parliament. Following its demise, the civilization vanished from memory… until an archaeologist named Rogelio de Inchaurrandieta came across Argaric artefacts in 1869 and began to ask questions.
Inchaurrandieta exhibited his discovery at the International Archeology Congress in Copenhagen (1866-1912). He spoke of an unknown civilization from the Bronze Age that he had found on a steep hill in the municipality of Totana, in Spain’s Region of Murcia. He displayed gold and silver objects and spoke of a large, fortified city that lacked any type of connection with known historical societies. Nobody believed him.
But in 1877, the Belgian brothers Luis and Enrique Siret arrived in Murcia in search of mining prospects. They ended up confirming the existence of the unknown society, including what had been its large urban center, which extended 35,000 square kilometres through the southeast of the Iberian Peninsula. This site was methodically excavated: agricultural tools, precious metals and even the remains of princesses were preserved.
The study El Argar: The Formation of a Class Society, by archaeologists Vicente Lull, Rafael Micó, Roberto Risch and Cristina Rihuete Herrada from UAB, points out that El Argar “is one of the emblematic cultures of the early Bronze Age in Europe. The large settlements on its hills, the abundance of well-preserved [tombs] in the subsoil of the towns, as well as the quantity, variety and uniqueness of the artefacts, have since attracted the attention of numerous researchers.”
Vicente Lull, professor of Prehistory at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and one of the world’s most recognized experts on this society, admits that the Argaric “is in fashion.” “Specialists come from all over the world to take an interest in this unique civilization… it is unparalleled, with first-rate technological development, which left nothing in its wake, but advanced everything. It’s like searching for the lost civilization.”
Experts agree that the discovery of El Argar marked a break with respect to the preceding Copper Age, regarding technological development, economic relations, urban and territorial organization patterns and funerary rites.
The Sirets, at the end of the 19th century, excavated ten Argaric sites and opened more than a thousand tombs, resulting in the destruction of the human remains. However, they carefully drew everything they found.
“The culture of El Argar is the first [class-based] society in the Iberian Peninsula. The central settlements accumulated an important part of the production surpluses and the work force. The effects of said control are manifested in the normalization of ceramic and metallurgical products and in the restricted circulation and use, above all, of metallic products,” assert the experts from UAB.
But not all the inhabitants of these cities accumulated wealth to the same extent, as evidenced by the exhumed goods of the ruling class. In 1984, Vicente Lull and Jordi Estévez distinguished three social groups. The most powerful class – made up of 10 percent of the population – enjoyed “all the privileges and the richest trappings, including weapons such as halberds and swords.” 50 percent of individuals, meanwhile, were of modest means and had recognized social-political rights, while 40 percent of residents were condemned to servitude or slavery.
“One of the characteristics of this society is that it was closed in on itself. Its defenses not only served as protection, but also created a cloistered society dominated by an oppressive ruling class,” Lull notes. Such aristocratic oppression likely could have triggered the end of the civilization.
The end of El Argar gave way to the late-Bronze Age. The causes of the collapse of Argaric society seem to have been various socio-economic and ecological factors. Possibly, the overexploitation of the environment led to ecological degradation that made economic and social reproduction unfeasible. The end of El Argar is characterized by the depletion of natural resources, work tools and the workforce, the latter in the form of high infant mortality and more diseases. Perhaps this situation led to an unprecedented social explosion and complete disappearance of this civilization, as evidenced by the fact that many of the unearthed buildings show signs of having been burned on all four sides.
Following the destruction, there was complete silence, only broken by the permanence in Alicante and Granada of some small Argaric groups – populated by the fleeing ruling classes – that survived another century.
Of the hundreds of Argaric tombs studied, one stands out that archaeologists call the Princess of La Almoloya, a young woman who died in the year 1635 BC. She was buried at the head of a unique building with her linens, ceramics and thirty valuable objects made of gold, silver, amber and copper. Beneath her grave, the body of a man who had died years before was found.
About 100 kilometres from Pliego, in Antas – the economic and political center of El Argar – a building was found that included a large room, with benches and a podium. It could accommodate 50 people. The researchers assume that it was a kind of parliament, perhaps the first in the world.
“We will never know what was discussed there,” says Lull, “because the Argarics, despite their development, did not master writing. It’s a mystery about a mystery.”
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