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April 28, 2017

Book Notes - Joel Whitney "Finks"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Joel Whitney's Finks is a timely and compelling exploration of the CIA's infiltration of the literary and arts communities during the Cold War.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"Another odd episode steps out from the Cold War's shadows. Riveting."

In his own words, Joel Whitney's Book Notes playlist for his book Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World's Best Writers:

I don't listen to a lot of music when I write but I listen to it while I'm researching/reading, which I do a lot of even when writing so-called creative work. But with Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World's Best Writers, an intertwining narrative of the Cold War weaponization of writers, it's possible to do a chapter or a companion book on the Cold War uses of music. Hearts and minds are won through all sorts of pop and high art media, the Cold Warriors have insisted and still do. To judge by the stuff that was championed and subsidized during the period, everything we might think of as innocent or above politics was targeted and probably subsidized at some point by one side or other, probably both. Here, then, are songs that reminded me of what I was writing, while writing it, songs that could have been in the sequel I won't write ("the State's hand behind the music we listened to during the Cold War") and songs that I just happen to love and can sometimes manage to listen to while writing or reading without too much distraction. I do plan on writing a TV script from the research done for Finks. I hope one or more of these songs end up in the soundtrack.

1. Prokofiev Number 5, Op. 100 (starts at 5:02)

The Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev composed his Fifth Symphony toward the end of World War II. It premiered in January 1945 in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. In November, the Boston Symphony Orchestra introduced the symphony to America. He was, aftter all, from a nation that was still an Allied power. Boston Symphony Orchestra recorded it a year later, in February 1946, when the status of ally was much more questionable. In post-war Germany, American and Allied officers, former spies and anti-communist intellectuals, noticed something significant that winter of 1946: the Soviet quarter of Berlin was drawing audiences from the rest of the city precisely through culture. As they prepared to pivot from fighting fascism to fighting communism, they worried that culture was a weapon. For a certain class of warrior it was Russian and Soviet high culture, in particular, that might draw the wavering European intellectuals to their flawed ideology. A few years later, Prokofiev would fall afoul of the Soviet Politburo and culture wranglers. The episode would make perfectly clear what the downside of government sponsorship of the arts was: control of the artists. I saw a performance of this symphony in DC at the Kennedy Center during the final stages of writing my first book Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World's Best Writers, with a Russian friend, meditating on the piece and its place in the Cold War. For Finks starts very much in that moment of panic with the Americans pivoting hysterically to take on the great Russian behemoth, who had sacrificed many more lives than the Americans to stop Nazism. The death and winter in the piece are punctuated by spring renewal.

2. Louis Armstrong - Cabaret

​Louis Armstrong's rendition of "Cabaret" is emblematic of American exuberance -- the optimistic twin of its rampant fear of communism. The self-conscious can-do attitude of Cold War America buttressed the belief that art and propaganda could be funded in secret--through the CIA. Americans could do what the Russians were doing, but do it better. The CIA's secret budget would bypass the fruitless conflicts of trying to make the case to reactionaries in the Congress (aka democracy) to fund the arts. And secrecy would also make American propaganda work better, proving a subtler sell.

What emerged then was a type of propaganda where many of the finest propagandists on our team wouldn't even know their role in the propaganda, or might only glimpse this role after agreeing to the tasks, tours or terms. This would only hold up, of course, as long as the secrecy lasted. When the CIA's cultural funding was exposed in 1967, however, it was a true American scandal, and no one was celebrating in the same way they were during performances of this classic rendition of the signature song from Cabaret, the musical. Louis Armstrong and other jazz artists had been among those covertly sponsored by the instruments of state and sent to Germany, France and elsewhere; as was the first abstract expressionist exhibition in Western Europe. This has always been one of my favorite Louis Armstrong songs, even before I knew anything about the cultural Cold War's pursuit of it for American soft power needs.

3. Police - Every Breath You Take

"Every Breath You Take" is one of the reminders that weird obsession and good art can often be married. Even weirder than the lyrics of unrestrained stalking and personal possession that made this song a hit, though, is the fact that the drummer's father, Miles Copeland, also happened to be a spook who joined the team of spies that overthrew the elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, in order to install the more kleptocrat-friendly Shah in his place in 1953. Iranian democracy has remained out of reach ever since. When Copeland Sr. looked back upon the CIA's early efforts at regime change, even before Iran, in which refugees were sent covertly back over the borders of countries like Albania, often to their deaths (as these missions were betrayed by moles), he noted dryly, that “when you look at that whole period . . . the entire Western intelligence effort, which was pretty big, was what you might call minus advantage. We’d have been better off doing nothing.”

4. Philip Glass: Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra, Mvmt. 3

I once read that classical music stimulates the creative mind and the memory. Whether or not that's true, I get distracted while writing, especially by songs with lyrics, fast-paced music, or throbbing beats; so whether drafting or editing, I look for music that feels or sounds like thinking. Otherwise I just need silence. This Philip Glass piece is one of my favorites for these moods, and the quintessential music-as-thought piece. The Metamorphosis pieces too.

5. Radiohead - Present Tense

Long before jazz greats like Armstrong were sponsored for tours, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was sent on its first European tour on the CIA's (read: taxpayer's) dime. Music, like literature, was decidedly a Cold War weapon. Meanwhile, as we entered a new, inverted Cold War in the Trump era, I first heard this song just as Finks was going into its about-to-launch phase, and Trump had cheated his way into the White House (conservatives on the Supreme Court having overturns parts of key voting rights provisions the summer before). The trauma of that latter fact alone, along with the riffs on dance as a weapon, merged the book, and this song, with Trumpocalypse in my mind. Art was a weapon we would all need now more than ever.

This dance
This dance
is like a weapon
is like a weapon
of self-defense
of self-defense
against the present
against the present
the present tense.

Thom Yorke crescendos in a way that only he freakily can with the line "as my world/ comes crashing down/ I'll be dancing/ freaking out..."

6. Radiohead - Spectre

What was it that got Radiohead's "Spectre" rejected as the theme for the Bond movie of the same name? Were the opening lines not sufficiently exuberant or chipper about spying to adhere to the franchise? "I'm lost,/ I'm a ghost./ Dispossessed,/ taken host./ My hunger burns/ a bullet hole,/ spectre of/ my mortal soul." In the fifth chapter of Finks I examine occasions when the CIA directly and indirectly censored films and writers through magazines it presided over in secrecy or through movie penetration schemes at companies like Paramount pictures. Lurking behind the chapter is the broader question of what would get your work quietly banned, a ban you might not even know had such a pronounced ideological bent behind it? Eventually the subtlety of the censorship became an aesthetic of sober exuberance that would have been known but invisible to many Cold War era artists and writers. When the scheme was exposed (in 1967), the subtlety of the propaganda could no longer be maintained. So the defense morphed into the assertion, widely believed, that the CIA never censored. Those who participated joined the chorus defending their paymasters whose patronage was stuck to their reputations like a barnacle. Christopher Lasch, Frances Stonor Saunders, John Berger and others who wrote about the censorship or were themselves censored or soft-censored begged convincingly to differ.

7. Andrew Bird - Banking on a Myth

This song is about the ultimate, nearly omnipotent schemer, who

Deals in commodities of the abstract sort
Buys them in bulk but then he sells it short
Talent, genius, love​​
​(​even signs of affection​)​
He floods the market​,​
there's no price protection
And when his master plan is unfurled, there stands
A handsome bid on the weather systems of the world​...​

8. "Jane Woh Kaise Log The," from the Soundtrack to Guru Dutt's Pyaasa​

A friend introduced me to the work of Indian filmmaker Guru Dutt and his film Pyaasa years before work began on Finks. The film is surely one of Dutt's most beloved and most depressing stories. A poet, Vijay, is essentially tricked out of his legacy after his jealous would-be publisher betrays him by capitalizing on his fictitious death. As in Finks, a writer was being used by the capitalist class for his art's marketability and his nonconformist brand. This song, "Jane Woh Kaise Log The," dramatizes a scene in which Vijay's boss invites the poor writer, as yet with no book contract, to serve food and drinks at his party in order to reinforce his low status for the publisher's wife, Meena, who once loved Vijay. A battery of shots between Vijay and Meena traces her misery in having walked away from her true love merely to attach herself to someone with money. The scene climaxes around famous poets reciting their work, and Vijay jumps in with a lament over "the lucky ones who get the love they seek." A haunting melody, a story unlike most commercial film fare: a poet who wishes to leave the material world.

9. Mercedes Sosa - Luna Tucumana

I first heard this song with the Flores family of La Lucha. During my first year living in Costa Rica, don Jaime, doña Marjorie, and their sons Rolando, Johnny and Alex kindly fed me, bantered with me, indulged my bad Spanish and my occasional homesickness and taught me about the great Don Pepe Figueres, Costa Rica's liberator. In the wake of a case of possible election fraud for the elections of 1948, Figueres overthrew the pretender, took power, passed anti-racism laws and then banned the military. Then, o miracle, he stepped down.

Jaime told me about Figueres's heroic persona (though only 5'3", he once stood up to a possible airplane highjacking by facing down the plane on the runway with a machine gun, went the stories). His memoir, The Spirit of 48, graced the Flores family's bookshelves. I tried making my way through its battery of historical references that my 22 year old anglophone mind struggled to contextualize. As I found out later, Figueres was also an anti-communist collaborator who took money from the CIA apparatus (for a political training school and a magazine called Combate). He then fought with CIA brass to launch his magazine without editorial meddling from the agency's propaganda wings. But during my time in Costa Rica, I only knew that he had given women and black Costa Ricans more rights approaching equality than they'd ever known there and that he'd made Costa Rica into a pacifist's paradise (or so I thought then) when he sought to show the world what a country with no military could do.

When the reading slowed to a halt, the Floreses and I bonded more fluently over music. Mercedes Sosa tells the story of the moon in Tucuman Province (in Argentina). But it's also about the long distance some must walk to make their case. "I don't just sing to the moon because she shines, and nothing more. I sing to her because she knows the long road I walk." "Musica de protesta social," my Costa Rican friends called songs by artists like Sosa, and Cuba's Silvio Rodriguez.

10. John Holt - Police in Helicopter

Weekends during my time in Costa Rica, I went with colleagues to the Caribbean Coast, where in a nightclub in the beginning of my stay, I heard this John Holt rebel classic. Holt is virtually unknown in North America despite having written Blondie's hit "The Tide is High." But in terms of reggae moods with the effervescence of subversive dissent--"musica de protesta social"--"The Tide is High" was a bubble gum butterknife compared to this machete with shards for a handle. "Police in Helicopter" deals with the battle between sugar cane planters and those harvesting cannabis. After setting the scene of police in helicopters destroying marijuana fields, Holt sings, "If you continue to burn up the herb, we're gonna burn down your cane fields." The bridge turns the blunt threat into a plaintive bargaining: "We don't trouble your bananas, we don't trouble your corn, we don't trouble your pimiento, we don't trouble you at all. So if you continue to burn up the herb..." and so on. This was social protest music at its most audaciously direct, a threat in every verse.

11. Hombre - Silvio Rodriguez

Another one introduced by the Flores family in Costa Rica, this is a ballad by a singer/songwriter I've heard described as Cuba's Bob Dylan. So fraught and politicized was the US/Cuba relationship that when Silvio Rodriquez tried to accept a date to perform in the US in the early days of Obama's first term--almost 50 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis--he was turned down, the embargo preventing it, his concert in the US cancelled. This is the Cuban bard's elegy to legendary guerrilla Ernesto Che Guevara. Finks winds down with sections about a Ramparts magazine expose that breaks the news that the CIA who had colluded in (and possibly ordered the death of) the revolutionary in late 1967. The Ramparts piece was reported virtually in real time. But then the cultural CIA, in the person of one of the publishing world's erstwhile anticommunist propaganda publishers, also fought Che's widow in collusion with the Bolivian dictatorship to control the publication of Che's battlefield diaries. While Che is often derided and dismissed in the north as an executioner of men, a man in pursuit of a corrupt style of government, in the global south Che was an example of a David struggling against an imperialist Goliath, and the supreme anti-imperialist sacrifice. Though my interest lay in how U.S. coercion and bullying aimed at Cuba, Guatemala, and smaller nations around the globe had shaped the politics of people like Che, I nevertheless realized recently that for years I had listened to this song without knowing it had anything to do with Che.

Hombre, hombre sin templo
desciende a mi ciudad tu ejemplo.

(Man, man without a temple;
descending on my city is your example.)

Joel Whitney and Finks links:

excerpt from the book

Globe and Mail review
Kirkus Reviews review
National Post review
New York Times review

BOMB interview with the author
Electric Literature interview with the author
KCRW interview with the author
Paste profile of the author
VICE interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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