March 31, 2017

"Almost every journalist has met people like Mr. McLemore, sources who email you under pseudonyms with tips a little too good to be true."

"Often they seem to mostly want someone to talk to, and to have their experiences validated by a journalist, whose job, after all, is to decide what’s important and true. Most reporters would stop taking those calls when the story ideas don’t bear fruit, but not [Brian] Reed. He finds [John B.] McLemore’s life important in and of itself, and a whole world opens up to him."

Writes Amanda Hess (in the NYT) about the new podcast "S-Town." She avoids spoilers. You can listen to all 7 episodes here.

I highly recommend it. I listened to the whole thing in 3 days and immediately went back to Episode 1 to relisten (and am up to Episode 3). I consider it a work of art — perhaps a great work of art. The second go-round will tell. The first time through, you're pulled along by wanting to figure out who all these people are and what happened. There are layers of revelations. On re-listen, you see the first hints of what is to come. You see the repetitions of themes — such as time (McLemore is a restorer of clocks, sundials have sad inscriptions about time). You know as characters show up and start speaking in their own way from their own perspective what part they will play in the whole story. If it is a great work of art, it will be better the second time. That's my test.

I'm reading some other articles about "S-Town." Aja Romano has a piece in Vox with a headline that overstates the argument: "S-Town is a stunning podcast. It shouldn't have been made." The text says: "I’m not sure it should have been made." One might say that Reed invested so much of his time — speaking of time — gathering audio and got such great material that he just had to use it, and he processed it brilliantly. It may be so good because Reed, et al, were so desperate to justify using what they had. And McLemore's vivid raving is so wonderful, so fascinating, that it's hard to say it should be suppressed for the reason that you will know if you get to the end of episode 2.

Here are links to the Reddit threads discussing the show episode-by-episode. The top comment at the linked page is:
I wish I had a cousin like Tyler's uncle Jimmy to be my own personal hype man whenever I talk.

"Yeah!"

"Yes sir!"

"You goddamn right!"
Is there an ethical problem or are we free to enjoy Uncle Jimmy? Here's how Hess in the fit-to-print NYT referred to him: "Uncle Jimmy, who communicates exclusively through shouted affirmations." Jimmy is a man with a bullet lodged in his head.

Katy Waldman in Slate says that McLemore "embodies rightwing fantasies about the judgmental elitism of the left." Don't misread that. McLemore is obsessed with everything that's wrong with the world, especially global warming. He rants about it continually, enlarging talk on just about any subject into all the terrible things that are happening in the world. That is, he seems to be a lefty that popped out of rightwinger's fervid caricature. But "S-Town" isn't making a hero of him because he's into lefty issues. In fact, the show lets it become clear that his ravings on these subjects is symptomatic of his devastating personal problems.

Beyond clocks, McLemore also tended to his garden — lots of flowers and an elaborate circular hedge maze. People have found the maze on Google maps, and you can see photographs here.

Despite all the horror at the troubles of the world and the refuge in gardening, the show never mentions Voltaire's "cultivate your garden" resolution of "Candide." But the show does have literary references, notably the William Faulkner story "A Rose for Emily," which I was motivated to read yesterday. The story is mentioned early on, and every episode ends with the beautiful recording "A Rose for Emily" by The Zombies. Listen to that here. That's from the "Odessey and Oracle" album, which came out 50 years ago. Talk about time! (The Zombies are touring, playing the music from that album, and I hear they're great. They'll be in Madison on April 15th. Get your tickets here. I've got mine.)

18 comments:

madAsHell said...

"Uncle Bernie Comes Home from Prison".

traditionalguy said...

What a day. How does one stop and
watch hours of Blogging Art while adjusting to life after the main north -south road through Atlanta has been destroyed?

Where do youput 257,000 car trips a day? DJT needs to declare a Disaster.

Laslo Spatula said...

I think I'm going to listen to this on the weekend. Normally don't listen to podcasts -- prefer reading -- but Althouse has me intrigued...

@madAsHell: check the upcoming Cafes today.

I am Laslo.

Ann Althouse said...

"the main north -south road through Atlanta has been destroyed"

I've got a tab open for that. Planning to blog.

Luke Lea said...

I listened to all 7 episodes in one swoop. It is impossible to discuss without spoilers galore so I will just say I was a little disappointed by the way it wrapped up (or didn't). Could have been just me.

samsondale said...

I've seen the Zombies in recent years and they are fabulous; Colin Blunstone's voice was truly great, belying his years. Rod Argent was also in good voice and his playing is very good. Good advice by our hostess to get tickets for these guys. Especially since, as Professor Althouse seems to know, Odessey and Oracle is one of the great rock records. I discovered it in the past 10 years from all the raves on the Steve Hoffman site (my uncle bought me a Zombies Greatest Hits record in the '70s but it was skewed to the earlier years (which were also great but different from O&O)).

John said...

I started listening yesterday on Ann's and Lileks' recommendation. Got about halfway through Ep 1, maybe not even halfway, and thought "These folks, McLemore and the podcaster both, are batshit crazy and not in an interesting way."

But James and Ann both said give it a chance. I generally trust both so I continued, figuring I would at least listen to all of Ep 1 before bailing.

Finished Ep 1 and started on Ep 2 yesterday and am completely hooked.

What is it about NPR folks? The narrator's voice has that smarmy NPR tone that I find annoying.

Anyway, I can get past that based on material and presentation.

John Henry

Lewis Wetzel said...

Althouse wrote:
Talk about time! (The Zombies are touring, playing the music from that album, and I hear they're great. They'll be in Madison on April 15th. Get your tickets here. I've got mine.)

No, don't! This is the kind boomer madness that has us stuck in a time loop. They aren't reliving a cherished past, they are making the past be NOW. Fer God's sake, you can still hear the Stones "Satisfaction" on pop radio and it came out over half a century ago! Why would you think "Satisfaction" is a cool song, but Rudy Vallee's "Winchester Cathedral" is old grandpa crap? Ninety years ago is really not that much longer than fifty years ago.

Ann Althouse said...

@Lewis Are you making a coherent point?

John said...

I heard the reference to Faulkner (and to Shirly Jackson) and was going to read them too. A long time since I've read any Faulkner, I am about due. Ann's link opened up the Faulkner on my PC.

Here is a pro-tip to get the Faulkner from the hard to read web page onto a tablet or Kindle:

Use a program called Get Pocket www.getpocket.com

It puts an icon on your browser (on PC, phone or tablet). Open a web page, click the icon, and the page, stripped of all ads but not pictures, shows up on the pocket app on your tablet, phone, PC in a nice easy to read format.

I've been using it for several years now and can't live without it. I'll see a story but not have time to read it: Click and it is in all my devices until I delete it. Since it downloads it to the device, I don't even need to be online, except when downloading, of course.

Well worth the price: Free.

Don't know when I'll read the Faulkner but it is there waiting for me until I do.

John Henry

wwww said...

I haven't had time to listen to the podcast. I feel ambivalent about doing so because of the suicide.

J2 said...

McLemore would definitely not be a suitable Supreme Court judge.

Lewis Wetzel said...

@Lewis Are you making a coherent point?
Boomers have got the rest of us stuck in a pop culture time warp. It needs to stop. For sixty years every new genre of pop music has been some sub-class of rock n' roll. Even the new country music just sounds more like rock and roll than the old time country music.

IgnatzEsq said...

Professor, how sure are you that the Zombies are the Zombies.

(The article, despite being from Buzzfeed, is well worth the read)

Jake said...

"But "S-Town" isn't making a hero of him because he's into lefty issues. In fact, the show lets it become clear that his ravings on these subjects is symptomatic of his devastating personal problems."

Bullshit.

He fits the elitist narrative so well as it pertains to the deep south. His personal problems exist because he was trapped in that awful place. He's gay. He believes in science, not god. He was one of them/ours.

McLemore was like a cute puppy for Reed. When Reed went down to Alabama I couldn't help but feel like he was at a zoo. Reminded me of that human zoo in Brussels.

That said, the production values were high and in the end it's a decent story. I didn't find McLemore any more interesting than the average dive bar crazy.

The Cracker Emcee said...

"I didn't find McLemore any more interesting than the average dive bar crazy."

Yes. S-Town is entertaining but McLemore is a small town type that is very familiar to me. I've known dozens of that guy. Talking to them is always an exercise in veiled condescension. Only the naive and drunk take them seriously.

Kirk Parker said...


"@Lewis Are you making a coherent point?"

Hey, there's a first time for everything!

James Lileks said...

JohnL "What is it about NPR folks? The narrator's voice has that smarmy NPR tone that I find annoying. "

It's the curse of the modern podcast - the nasality, the uptalk?, the vocal fry. But for the most part I stopped noticing it, or caring, after the 1st ep.

Jake: "He fits the elitist narrative so well as it pertains to the deep south. His personal problems exist because he was trapped in that awful place. He's gay. He believes in science, not god. He was one of them/ours."

But it wasn't a horrible place, as the show eventually points out. If the elitists wanted to claim him as one of theirs, they couldn't have chosen a less attractive example. "Here's a militant atheist whose aching spiritual void has been filled with apocalyptic terror, which he visits on everyone all the time, with a sneer!"

It seems to me that his personal problems were caused because he was trapped in himself, not Alabama.

Cracker Emcee: "Yes. S-Town is entertaining but McLemore is a small town type that is very familiar to me. I've known dozens of that guy. Talking to them is always an exercise in veiled condescension. Only the naive and drunk take them seriously."

And I knew them from college-town bars. They were smart, had the whole world figured out, couldn't succeed because of The System, and spent their time shooting pool and being conspicuously, rudely, proudly iconoclastic. They went nowhere.