Bring Back the King Column: An Hommage , Not a Parody

News Item: ” USA Today Drops Larry King Column.”

O.K., everybody and his brother has done a parody of Larry King’s USA Today column, so let me make this clear: This is not a parody . This is an hommage , an appreciation, a call for reconsideration.

I have to admit, I’ve considered doing a parody myself in the past: His column was at times parodiable, what with the apparently aimless concatenation of musings and meanderings, plugs, name-drops and nostalgia. All those one- and two-sentence assertions, questions, cracker-barrel philosophizing, along with the wisdom of Chairman Frank.

Some of the parodies have been funny (Maureen Dowd’s), some have been funny and cruel (I saw one from The Onion entitled “I Am Fucking Insane”).

But now that USA Today has announced that it’s dropping the King column, I think I’m going to miss it, and perhaps the time has come for a reconsideration of what we’ve lost. A reconsideration, at the very least, of the form, the signature literary device employed by Mr. King’s column: the three-dot ellipsis …

To help those unfamiliar with the form to get a feeling of the King column, here’s a compression of several topic sentences from a recent one, linked by his three dots1:

“Angelina Jolie, whose film Original Sin opened Friday, tells me she has nothing in the works right now … Julie Andrews tells me she is ‘certain’ she will sing again … A salute also to my man, Don Imus … I’m very proud of my wife, Shawn. She’s a great singer and a terrific talent who chooses to be a mother first … Steve Martini’s newest thriller, The Jury … is a cracklin’ good read. It’s a puzzling whodunit. The only question I have is why the title? The jury plays no part in the plot. Sure there’s a trial, but that’s only a small part of the work … Mark Brenner who just appeared on The View on ABC has a pretty good self-help book called Tipping for Success … Mark gives you the ins and outs of the world of tipping, which I think stands for ‘to insure proper service.’”

And this is from The Onion parody: “Five minutes with Walter Matthau is like ten years in an Ivy League school … It’s a shame what’s happening in Sarajevo … Kudos to those fine folks who make Bugles so consistently delicious … Boy, do I hate this shirt … What’s that guy over there doing? … The Amish make fine houses … “

While the parodies of the King column and the mockery of sophisticates tend to focus on how antiquated the three-dot column form was, at least in Mr. King’s hands, I would suggest that it should be looked upon not as antiquated but as postmodern .

Those three dots are not mere ellipses; they are aporiae , as we liked to call them at Yale graduate school. They are embodied absences, gaps and silences that speak eloquently of that which is lost, missing links that call into question the very notion of linkage.

The apparent absence of causal or logical or thematic connection expressed by the three-dot ellipses is a metaphor for the absence of causal logic in the universe itself, the gaps, the black holes in the very ground of being.

Larry King’s three dots deconstruct the false notions of coherence, the bourgeois illusion of unity that conventional columnists are unwitting slaves to. His ellipses turn the stream-of-consciousness so favored by modernists into disjunctures–no longer a continuous stream, but mere individual droplets of consciousness … very postmodern.

Larry King has learned, and Larry King teaches, the lesson of the great Derrida: that to seek coherence from the written word is to whore after a false god who will always defer the illusory promise of a final meaning to a point forever beyond our grasp.

Now in attempting an hommage , in attempting to put my many disjointed thoughts for this week’s column into three-dot form, I can’t claim that I have achieved the haiku-like compression of Larry King. So consider this not an imitation, but a humble tribute:

Here’s an arbitrary transition … From the column that’s no longer there (Larry’s) to The Man Who Wasn’t There … It’s the new film from the Coen brothers, and it’s terrific (their best since The Big Lebowski ) … You won’t be able to see it until it opens on Nov. 2… The point is that Billy Bob Thornton is an amazing spooky presence in this film … And what’s truly remarkable is: He’s a dead ringer for Gary Condit (I kid you not) … It’s a black-and-white neo-noir, and Billy Bob has this haunted, vacant, empty, ghostly, bleached-out face … Tell me you don’t see the resemblance … And it’s set in Condit country, too … Up there in Santa Rosa, Calif. … I visited there once …

There’s something else to Billy Bob’s face in The Man Who Wasn’t There … He’s not just haunted, he’s virtually posthumous … He drifts through the film like a zombie (this is not a criticism) … What is it about the lure of the posthumous state? We loved it in The Sixth Sense . We loved it (or I did, anyway) in The Others … Do we all sometimes feel a little like one of The Dead in the midst of life … Does the idea of being dead help us appreciate life … Or Larry King? Just asking.

I’ll just come out and say it … In some ways, The Man Who Wasn’t There really is the Gary Condit story … And speaking of Condit, I must admit that after resisting for a while, I’m beginning to get into Conditology … It’s begun to attain the richness and complexity of some of the great predecessor scandal-exegesis matrices … I think what finally changed my mind was the delight Mickey Kaus, Conditology pioneer (and frequent three-dot columnist himself), has taken in the subject in his kausfiles.com online column (linked through Slate ) … His “Condit-Obsessives’ Corner: Watch the Watch,” a complex study of the multiple possible implications of the sneaky Condit disposal of the watchbox (but not the watch), was wonderful … Gave to the Condit story a kind of Trollopean dimension, in that it suddenly reminded me of my favorite Trollope novel, The Eustace Diamonds , which revolves (for 900 pages or so) around the issue of a misappropriated item of jewelry … But I have to admit that in his subsequent post-Chung “The Hidden Genius of Condit’s P.R. Campaign,” Kaus left me a bit behind in his winged flights of contrarian reverse-spin forensic conjecture … Still, I want more … No, I don’t think he killed her … But I think he’s still lying and hiding something … I think he met her the day she disappeared, and he’s hiding something about that meeting … and it wasn’t a visit to Baskin-Robbins with her discount coupons.

But while we’re on the subject of death, or posthumous life … Will someone please tell me that the new Albert Brooks movie, My First Mister , is a cruel joke … I wrote a column a couple of years ago when Mr. Brooks’ last film, The Muse , debuted (see: “Dear Albert Brooks: Please Don’t Go Warm,” The New York Observer , Aug. 30, 1999) … I talked about what I thought was a dangerous tendency in this most brilliantly gifted comic artist: to try to make himself lovable … To try to make himself a warm, audience-friendly, mainstream movie star … Who needs another one of those when there’s only one Albert Brooks … But did he listen? The new film, in which he co-stars with Leelee Sobieski (directed by the gifted Christine Lahti), has him go so warm he practically melts … So warm it could be a mean-spirited Albert Brooks parody of an actor who thinks he needs to “go warm” … An actor actually obsessed with winning the “Humanitas” Award, as Brooks’ character was in The Muse … So warm you want to puke … So warm it reminds you of the end of Brooks’ amazing first feature, Real Life (a prophetic satire of “reality TV” and one of the two or three funniest American movies ever made) … When Brooks dons clown makeup and reenacts the burning-of-Atlanta scene from Gone With the Wind … Somebody please sit Albert Brooks down and talk with him; he obviously won’t listen to me … An “intervention” might be called for. Stop him before he becomes warmed over …

Speaking of warmth, let me make a transition to the Sun … Actually to the Sun in my “Sun Studios” T-shirt … I hope you don’t mind if I write about my favorite T-shirt … That’s what a three-dot column is for! … I got it, of course, down at Sun Studios on Union Avenue in Memphis … It’s the anti-Graceland … Sun Studios is where rock music was born, Graceland is where it died … Well, that’s unfair–rock ‘n’ roll will never die … But rock ‘n’ roll was born in that great little hole in the wall where Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash first recorded … Where Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm recorded what many believe was the very first rock song, “Rocket 88″ … (I know, I know, there’s a lot of dispute over that … Get a life … ) The important thing is, Sun Studios is the locus of one of the great creative moments in modern American culture … Plus their T-shirt is, to my mind, beautiful: a big bright yellow sun on a black background with a black rooster crowing in the heart of the sun … Sun was one of the first mainstream labels to give voice to black singers … And just about every time I wear it, some dude will point to it or nod out of respect and recognition … And at parties, when anyone asks, “Have you been to Sun Studios?”, I like to say “Yes, I recorded there,” or “Yes, I laid down some tracks there” … Because that’s the great thing–for a fee, they’ll let you lay down your own vocal track on the master of one of the original rock ‘n’ roll classics first recorded there … on the original equipment, the original mike and sound board … The original equipment whose famous flaw–some out-of-sync thing in the sound recording– created the signature Sun echoey effect that endowed those recordings with some kind of spooky, spectral, posthumous power.

I chose to do the vocals for “Heartbreak Hotel” … I was terrible … Except for one moment, I thought, when the King goes into that whole growling “You make-a me so-a lonely, baby” repetition thing … I sincerely feel I was briefly in a zone … Afterward, when the studio engineer handed me the tape, he gave me curious look and said, “You were kinda doing a beatnik thing there, was that it?” … It wasn’t exactly a compliment, I don’t think, but he kind of recognized my moment … It was a big thrill … I was down there during “Death Week,” the pilgrimage of Elvis fanatics to the Graceland grave site, writing about Elvis culture for The Times Magazine (the piece, “Elvis Heals,” is reprinted in my collection, The Secret Parts of Fortune –hey, it wouldn’t be a Larry King hommage without a plug or two).

I found Death Week perversely moving and concluded by conjecturing that our fondness for the late Elvis has something to do with the transition America has made “from the young vital innocent pioneer nation we once were … to the bloated colossus we feel we’ve become: the Fat Elvis of nations” …

By the way, I can still listen to Graceland –the album itself and the Paul Simon song of that name–almost compulsively at times … Anyway, I think the fact that I’ve “recorded” at Sun Studios earns me the right to wear my Sun Studios T-shirt almost all the time (well, I have three of them in rotation) … By the way, I’m not the only one who feels this reverential toward the place … U2 made a pilgrimage there to record for Rattle and Hum , and one song they did there, “Angel of Harlem,” is one of the supremely beautiful anthems of that supreme anthemic band …

Where was I? … In Memphis … Which reminds me, in a way, of Bob Dylan. It is where he first discovered, where he first recorded, that “wild mercury sound” I wrote about recently ( The Observer , May 28) … That sound he’d been searching for but hadn’t found till a recording session for Blonde on Blonde in 1965 in Memphis … You might recall that in that Dylan column, I called upon readers to send in their suggestions for the single most powerful emotional stanza–quatrain, passage, moment, whatever–in all of Dylan’s work. (Mine was from “If You See Her Say Hello” on Blood on the Tracks ) … I’ve had a lot of provocative suggestions with explanations sent to me from perceptive readers … and now, with a new Dylan album about to come out (but not, as of press time, in my hands), I think the time has come for me to bring this contest–well, not really contest ; no prize except my approval–to a close … So it’s now or never: send your suggestions soon to The Edgy Alliance, 577 Second Avenue, Box 105, New York, N.Y. 10016.

And as long as I’m giving out the address, I want to thank all of you who sent contributions to the “City Critters Stumpy Fund” to that address … City Critters is the incredibly dedicated and extremely conscientious cat-rescue group … In my farewell column to my beloved orange “mambo cat” Stumpy, I asked readers to contribute to a fund in his memory to help pay for the medical treatment of injured strays, and the nurturing and adoption process City Critters is so good at, particularly with injured or aging cats … You can check out some of the truly heartwarming results on http://www.citycritters.org … Click on “Stumpy’s Page” and link to “Stumpy’s Kids” to see cats that have been saved with Observer readers’ contributions. (Please send checks made out to City Critters marked “for the Stumpy Fund” to the address above.)

And now for a completely unrelated transition … I still disagree with Donald Foster about the alleged “Shakespearean” Funeral Elegy (Mr. Foster is the Vassar professor of literature best known for having exposed Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors , and for having identified a sententious 600-line Funeral Elegy overlooked for centuries as one of Shakespeare’s last works) … But I believe he deserves more credit than he’s been getting from reviewers for solving, I think definitively, a somewhat lesser but nonetheless important enigma of American literary history: whether Thomas Pynchon once used the pseudonym “Wanda Tinasky” to pen long, Pynchonesque-sounding letters to California’s Anderson Valley Advertiser , a much-admired crusading weekly published in the area Pynchon was said to have inhabited during the period he was writing Vineland … I wrote about the question (in a piece also collected in The Secret Parts of Fortune ), and while I reserved judgment definitively, I found the letters strikingly Pynchonesque in a number of their arcane literary and pop-culture references … I will admit to wanting it to be true … But Don Foster, in what I think is an impressive feat of archival research, has solved it with a certainty far beyond any I would credit to his “Shakespeare discovery” … His book, Author Unknown , is worth reading just for this window into the mind of the eccentric, peripatetic, perhaps sinister character who was the real Wanda Tinasky …

Here are some other books, films and songs I urge you not to miss: Tim Riley’s book on Beatles lyrics, Tell Me Why –the best piece of writing about popular music, from someone knowledgeable about music, that I’ve read … Thanks to Kent Jones of Film Comment , who wrote in support of my appreciation of Slacker … and to praise Richard Linklater’s forthcoming animated film, Waking Life … Mr. Jones also pointed out something important I was unaware of … the “oblique strategy” cards in Slacker were part of an actual deck by Brian Eno and can be found on the web at http://www.rtqe.net/ObliqueStrategies/

I’ll miss the late Robert Jones, a rare literary gentleman who was the editor of the HarperPerennial issues of my last two books …

“More Than a Feelin’,” the late-70′s power ballad by Boston, is immortal! … Can anybody explain to me Greil Marcus’ Sunday Times Arts and Leisure piece on the new Dylan album? … I’m guessing that Mr. Dylan said, “Well, Greil, I’ll give you an interview, but you can’t portray it like an interview actually happened .” I’m not sure what was going on … “God Only Knows”: my nominee for the greatest Beach Boy song … The book I’m most proud to have blurbed lately is Tom Frank’s One Market Under God : It’s destined to become a classic of American culture, the way Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday was …

And how about this to close with: It’s from The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola , the founder of the Jesuits who was–I don’t know how to put this delicately–a very interesting, freaky mystic, too … He believed in programming the mind for ecstatic trances (and, like, this was before raves and all that), and I came across a passage in The Spiritual Exercises which said something new and interesting, I think, about temptation and distractions: “For commonly the enemy of our human nature tempts more under the appearance of good when one is exercising oneself in the illuminative way.”

Dude’s got a point, I think … Until the next time, I know I plan to exercise in the illuminative way, and I hope you do, too …