Sasha Frere-Jones

  • Spit Happens

    COME BACK WITH ME, children, to a New York before David Zwirner was Robert Moses, when nobody was watching and a “slightly hunchback, short, magical-looking” buddy from the Pacific Northwest could flood the caves of independent film with color and mayhem. Care was different then—the Hotel Chelsea wouldn’t kick you out for setting off the fire alarm and Allen Ginsberg was keeping visionaries in milk and blankets on 12th Street. The buddy from Washington State was Harry Smith, and John Szwed has ably shaped his chaos for the first full biography, Cosmic Scholar. What remains to be determined—and

  • Director’s Cut

    IT IS MY FAULT and only mine if I keep Gordon Matta-Clark as a personal Jesus, but the story flies. Matta-Clark died, way too early, at the age of thirty-five in 1978, and spent a chunk of his time slicing up abandoned buildings, which is very Jesus-y. One of his building cuts has become a permanent part of Manhattan’s west side—of that, more soon—and he even contributed to New York’s proudest category of impermanence: the restaurant. (RIP Food, Soho, 1971–1989.) Matta-Clark was tuned to frequencies prophetic in nature and number: the glow of decay, the need to befriend ghosts, and the spiritual

  • Free to Be Me and You and Me and You and You

    IT FEELS RIGHT TO START WITH A THUMBNAIL HISTORY from Valerie Wilmer, the British photographer and writer who published As Serious as Your Life in 1977, one of the first book-length attempts to document a music with as many names as heroes.

    It was at the turn of the ’sixties with the appearance of a series of recordings made by Ornette Coleman, an alto saxophonist from Texas, that the music hitherto known as “jazz” began first to be described as “free” music. Coleman, along with the pianist Cecil Taylor and the tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and, eventually, the drummer Sunny Murray,

  • Quite Contrary

    IN A RECENT PIECE FOR GAWKER, “Gary Indiana Hates in Order to Love,” Paul McAdory looked at how the writer makes affective intensities cooperate. “Indiana’s greatness,” McAdory wrote, “rests partly on his ability to fling aside the sheer curtains partitioning love from hate and extract a superior pleasure from their mixture.” It may be bad form to quote a parallel review of the book I’m looking at—Fire Season, a collection of essays stretching back to 1991—or maybe it’s just confusing to do so without going into attack mode. Sorry, odiophiliacs! I want to simply agree with McAdory’s essay and

  • interviews March 31, 2022

    The Varieties of Relic Experience

    During the pandemic, Warren Ellis wrote Nina Simone’s Gum in his Paris atelier. As he told me, “It’s where I’ve pretty much done everything for the last ten years. It’s an old barn, converted into a studio.” The book centers on a piece of gum Ellis pulls off the piano Nina Simone used at a concert in 1999, but it ranges out through his history of learning to play violin and accordion, and then later joining Dirty Three and meeting Nick Cave. It’s a quick, rich book. We spoke by Zoom in January.

    SASHA FRERE-JONES: So this all begins when Nick Cave booked Nina Simone to play his version of the

  • The Naked and the Dead

    IN 1998, Lucy Sante published The Factory of Facts, a memoir of her childhood in Belgium and the Sante family’s stuttering moves back and forth (and finally forth) to the States—ultimately, to Summit, New Jersey—when she was eight, in 1962. Toward the end of the memoir, she marks her story as a displacement, “as if I were writing about someone else.” Sante is talking, here, about the French of her youth contrasted with the English of America, and how “languages are not equivalent one to another.” Something else is in play, though. The eight-year-old boy that Sante speaks for would need to

  • culture December 14, 2021

    Greg Tate (1957–2021)

    Greg Tate, a longtime contributor to the Village Voice and other publications, died last week. Here, four critics pay tribute to Tate’s influential, hyper-referential, bumptious, and generous writing and conversation.


    By Daphne A. Brooks

    Every conversation began in medias res because the truth of it was that he so clearly lived his life like a brother who had been chopping it up with you for centuries already, as if you and he had always been in the deep-water groove of one long, rolling and roustabout, everlasting, in-the-round, in-the-midnight-hour session, one that even

  • interviews December 08, 2021

    Pathology Reports

    Early in the pandemic, I googled “community” and “solidarity” and other common words whose purpose I could no longer feel. When I entered “Communism,” I got a page of self-published MAGAroni books detailing the failures of Jon Stewart and then, a few pages in, actual Communists popped up. This translation of Théorie Communiste’s piece on conspiracism brought me to Cured Quails blog. (I later quoted this piece in an essay for New York Review of Books about Adam Curtis.) Because I liked the name of the journal and they seemed committed to difficulty in a general sense, I ordered the first volume

  • Mask and You Shall Receive

    WHAT’S COMMONLY KNOWN ABOUT THE PORTUGUESE WRITER FERNANDO PESSOA is that he died young-ish at the age of forty-seven in 1935, drank heavily, and assigned authorship of his work to over a hundred “heteronyms,” pen names that carry more biographical heft than the average alias. Pessoa died having published only one book of poetry in Portuguese (Mensagem) and two self-published chapbooks of English-language poetry. The lion’s share of his work was found in a trunk containing about 25,000 pages of writings. Without much of a public record of his life as he lived it, celebrating Pessoa and researching

  • Perverted by Language

    TROLL, SYLLABIST, BANDLEADER, orator, pest, alcoholic, medium, stenographer, record producer, pedant, speed freak, duppy, redeemer, and glorious irritant, Mark E. Smith was, before anything else, a writer. We know this because of the Fall, a rock band he initiated, destroyed, revived, and maintained between 1976 and his death on January 24, 2018. Though it is tempting to imagine Smith taking a different path and becoming the world’s least biddable radio host, he became himself with and through the Fall.

    Mark E. Smith stood before this band, both connected and not, preaching from a psychic

  • Triple Double

    POETRY AND MUSIC SHARE A LITTLE, mechanically, but are united by a common enemy: aboutness. What in the world is John Coltrane’s 1966 album, Meditations, about? As many times as I’ve listened to it, I wouldn’t dare claim that the music addresses a subject or expresses something as flimsy as an idea. But Meditations does not, in any way, duplicate the work of another album, and it has a function as particular as lemon pepper chicken or the quadratic equation. It does something in a deliberate way, embodying spiritual energy in a manner that no written brief can approach.

    It’s apt, then, that

  • American History XYZ

    YOU MAY NOT HAVE BEEN thinking about American history on September 17, not in the longitudinal sense. Maybe you were taking a limited view of the historical arc, something like, “What the fuck?” That morning, as he often does, Trump connected the immediate and the long-view senses of history by announcing the “1776 Commission,” a body conjured from thin air and allegedly dedicated to the case of “patriotic education.” The proximate insult that Trump and his speechwriters were responding to was the New York Times’s 1619 Project, a collection of essays and study resources with a longer view that

  • interviews November 24, 2020

    In Search of Soul

    Emily J. Lordi’s new book, The Meaning of Soul, is her third, and it continues her larger project of examining how the work of Black vocalists embodies Black music in both historical and practical forms. She’s written extensively on Donny Hathaway and Aretha Franklin, who appear here alongside Nina Simone, Otis Redding, Minnie Ripperton, and a half dozen other artists. Over the summer, I talked about the book several times with Lordi, who works as a freelance writer and an English professor at Vanderbilt University. Those conversations have been combined, condensed, and edited for clarity.

  • Boroughed Time

    GIVEN TIME, every discussion of New York in the 1970s becomes a discussion of the South Bronx. When documentary filmmakers need to indicate the decade of New York’s municipal failure, the rubbled lots of the South Bronx mark the moment and do the failing. When overpaid Netflix directors need to gloss the Black experience in New York in the 1970s, an abandoned tenement is cast as the silent buddy. The South Bronx is a real place dogged by the surreal, somehow always most itself when on fire. But New York in the ’70s was not a burning dumpster, and the South Bronx was not a crater full of dancers

  • interviews June 02, 2020

    Room to Improv

    Wayne Koestenbaum performs a surgery of surfaces. He finds the inside of a thing by drawing together the outsides of that thing, pinching the body until the folds present a name. His new book, Figure It Out, is a collection of essays and reviews written at some point in the twenty-first century, mostly the last ten years. The thread of the book is “Wayne thought it” and this glistens like a shell.

    These pieces are self-assignments, opportunities to create and solve a problem at the same time. Some tell you this right up front. From a 2015 piece called “Twelve Assignments,” here is the eleventh

  • God’s Neon

    PEOPLE LOVE TALKING ABOUT DENIS JOHNSON, but they do not love talking about his fifth novel, Already Dead. Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review tagged the book in August 1997, and it has yet to be untagged. She wrote that Already Dead was “a virtually unreadable book that manages to be simultaneously pretentious, sentimental, bubble-headed and gratuitously violent.” Kakutani got flagrant with the kicker, calling Already Dead an “inept, repugnant novel.” David Gates was more generous in the Sunday Book Review, though not enough to overwrite Kakutani. Few writers fell for the book when it

  • Los Angeles Is Burning

    SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE, written by Mike Davis in collaboration with historian Jon Wiener, is a kind of sequel to City of Quartz, the cultural analysis of Los Angeles Davis published in 1990. In the beginning of CoQ, Davis described the focus of that book as “the history of culture produced about Los Angeles.” And that is true for roughly two hundred pages of CoQ, as Davis reviews the work of California historians like Carey McWilliams (he approves) and “the European reconceptualization of the United States” carried out by Los Angeles transplants like Theodor Adorno (he’s torn). Davis also turns

  • culture March 17, 2020

    Electric Irish DMT Test

    Rob Doyle is a twentieth-century boy. His characters are monologous young men who get high and chase literary grouches with an eye out for that high-modernist whale, the epiphany. Many of Doyle’s contemporaries—literary men in their late thirties—confine themselves to the cramped emotional tone afforded to those invested in the internet’s panoramic view and its plausibly crushing Bad News. But Doyle looks back: His drugs and bands and writers are pre-9/11 specimens, across all of his books. The characters in his 2014 debut novel, Here Are the Young Men, are teen grads in Dublin off their faces,

  • syllabi December 06, 2019

    Variety and Vitality in Pop Criticism

    In a review of Ian Penman’s excellent essay collection It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track, I talk about the chaotic, bossless froth of pop-music criticism. I conclude that the practice is healthy. In support, I offer this bowl of noodles, an undisciplined syllabus designed to index the variety and vitality of critical writing tethered to pop. I didn’t look for anything—they came to mind, unbidden. First, some pieces that have been on my counter for a year or so, and, after that, older essays that still guide me.

  • interviews December 03, 2019

    Sasha Frere-Jones talks with poet Ariana Reines

    Ariana Reines’s A Sand Book was published in June of 2019 and longlisted for the National Book Award in September. It’s almost four hundred pages long, generous and radiant and brutal and patient and punishingly good. It pivots to truth, as Alice Notley once defined it: “a working active beingness.” A Sand Book lived in my bag all summer, nothing like an obligation and everything like a friend. The twelve sections could easily be free-standing volumes, but they churn in tandem, smoothly, inducing various states: ecstatic neutrality, detailed refusal, unworried celebration. The narrator studies