From The Desk Of Crash Test Dummies’ Brad Roberts: James Joyce

CrashTestlogoCrash Test Dummies are best known for their 1993 worldwide hit “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” yet the Canadian band put out six more albums after that before going on hiatus in 2005. CTD is back this week with Oooh La La (Deep Fried) but in a brand new incarnation. Mainman Brad Roberts (now based in New York City) wrote and recorded the album with producer and engineer Stewart Lerman (Antony And The Johnsons, Marshall Crenshaw, Roches) using ’70s musical toys such as the Optigan for the majority of the LP. (The two were joined on Oooh La La by longtime CTD backing vocalist Ellen Reid.) The result is the happiest-sounding record of Roberts’ two-decade career. Roberts will be guest editing all week. Read our new Q&A with him.


Roberts: When I attended university and read English literature, biographical criticism was very much discouraged. This was probably for the best, as young students first encountering an author are often tempted to see the work in the limited context of the author’s life, looking to the writer for an explanation of what she has written. As for the writers themselves, they decry these methods, insisting that the work is diminished when it becomes a sleuthing game in which the author’s life is “explained away” in the work. However, some 20  years after graduating, I find myself drawn to read the biographies, diaries and letters of the writers who interest me most. This is in large part due to the fact that I have had the chance, through my own creative work, to travel around the world and see some of the places where some of these literary productions took place. What I have found in my reading is that some of the greatest writers of the last century paid a very dear price in their personal lives in the service of their art. James Joyce is a fine example. Abused by his countrymen for the frankness of his writing and its so-called impropriety, Joyce left Dublin as a young man and never returned, living at times in Trieste, Zürich and, finally, Paris. Joyce wrote in a self-imposed exile from the very city that he was to write about all of his life: Dublin. If Joyce achieved nothing else in his later, more ponderous works, such as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, it was to document every sight, sound, odor, texture and taste of that haunted, loathsome, impoverished and shimmering city in the Emerald Isle. And yet as a human being, there was not much to like about him. He was known to be very cold-hearted, manipulative, ungenerous and disingenuous. However, he took art with utmost seriousness and was willing to live in poverty to pursue his massive and life-long literary ambition to, as he once put it, “make substance from words.” He was piss-poor in his early years, tutoring when he could. He was a frequent visitor at brothels, and later, he proved to be an abusive husband, a cruel son and a highly questionable parent. And yet he spent the vast majority of his time writing for hours, days and years, nearly crippled with blindness, arthritis and alcoholism. Toward the end of his life, the words that he lived for were all of his reality, as he could barely see; and yet right until the end, he was always inquiring about the names of this mountain, that hotel, those trees and whatever else might present itself in dim outline through his diseased eyes. He turned the words over in his mind, making them grist for his mill. Whatever you might think of his books, the man was fanatically devoted to writing. He lived and died for it, and it turned him into a lonely and self-alienated man.

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