Thirty-One Love Songs

To celebrate the upcoming collected stories concert series curated by David Lang at Carnegie Hall (April 22-29), we’ll be posting pieces from past issues of the Believer that tie into with the themes of each show. The third concert in collected stories is Love/Loss, featuring The Uncluded (Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson), Nico Muhly, Sam Amidon, Iarla Ó Lionáird, and Nadia Sirota, for which we’re posting Rick Moody’s essay on 69 Love Songs (from the May 2003 issue of the Believer).


DISCUSSED: Guys Who Winnow the White Album, Neil Young, The Art of Courtly Love, Trademark Pauses, Philadelphia, Singing Homeless Guys, Gilbert and Sullivan, The Human League

It’s the fate of the good work to belong to the public. It’s the fate of the masterpiece to be bent out of shape, to be reimagined, remodeled by its audience. It’s the fate of popular art to be scoured for clues, understood only in part or misunderstood, and this can’t be controlled by the hardworking artist who came up with the work in the first place. The way a book or record or painting or movie thrives in the face of this barrage of refractions indicates its long-term durability. Those endless new translations of The Odyssey and The Divine Comedy, for example. Or what about the film version of The Virgin Suicides,or The Hours?“The Star-Spangled Banner,” wrenched out of its casing by Jimi Hendrix. Joni Mitchell singing Mingus. If something works, it can stand a little misuse.

What about all those guys, and they are mainly guys, who have sat around winnowing The White Album down to a single disc? Well, first you get rid of “Revolution 9,” because it’s too long and too abstract, and then you get rid of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” despite the fact that one admires McCartney more as one grows older; out with “Bungalow Bill,” out with “Honey Pie,” “Martha My Dear,” because it’s about a dog, etc. Before long, you are left with a record that has on it “Dear Prudence,” “Julia,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Helter Skelter,” “Birthday,” “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except for Me and My Monkey),” “Cry Baby Cry,” “Yer Blues,” and so forth. In short, you’ve got an unbelievably great rock and roll album. Does it do the Beatlesa disservice? On the contrary. It indicates the bounty of material from which to choose. This is how some people pass an afternoon.

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Reincarnation in Exile

To celebrate the upcoming collected stories concert series curated by David Lang at Carnegie Hall (April 22-29), we’ll be posting pieces from past issues of the Believer that tie into with the themes of each show. The second concert in collected stories is Spirit, featuring Tuvan throat singing and Arvo Pärt’s Passio, for which we’re posting Tim McGirk’s essay on Tibetan Monks exposed to the twenty-first century (from the February 2013 issue of the Believer).


DISCUSSED: A Typical Spanish Breakfast, Exasperated Nuns, Precious Ones, Hip-hop Aspirations, Dilemmas for the Reincarnated, One of the Most Erotic Scenes in Indian Cinema, Mumbai’s Most Notorious Gangster, Divination, Accurate Cricket Match Predictions, A List of Genuine Rinpoches, Steven Seagal, A Delegation of Lamas, Lithium

When I was posted in Madrid as a foreign correspondent in the late 1980s, Spain was still a very Roman Catholic country, which is why a newspaper story in El Pais caught my attention: a little Spanish boy living in the mountains had been recognized as the reincarnation of a famous Tibetan lama. I decided to see the boy and made the mistake of taking along the only photographer I knew, Derek, a paparazzo for the British tabloids.

I knew nothing about Tibet, lamas, or reincarnation. But the story seemed splendidly improbable. This was, after all, Spain, the country that had lent its name to the Inquisition. And the story seemed to show that Spaniards, at last, were shaking off their hair-shirted Catholicism and exploring other means of spirituality. The boy’s name was Osel Hita Torres, and he lived in Bubión, in the Alpujarras Mountains above Granada.

The village was hard to reach. It had snowed the night before, and the road spiraling up the mountains was glazed with black ice. At a mountain inn, Derek and I stopped for a typical Spanish breakfast of espresso and cognac. After downing his cognac in one swallow, Derek reached into his photographer’s vest and, grinning, pulled out a matador’s cap.

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The Immortal Horizon


To celebrate the upcoming collected stories concert series curated by David Lang at Carnegie Hall (April 22-29), we’ll be posting pieces from past issues of the Believer that tie into with the themes of each show. The fourth concert in collected stories is Travel, featuring a performance of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage by pianist Louis Lortie, for which we’re posting Leslie Jamison’s essay on the Barkley Marathons (from the May 2011 issue of the Believer).


DISCUSSED: An Escaped Assassin, Raw Chicken Meat, Unimaginable Physical Exhaustion, A License Plate from Liberia, Duct-Tape Pants, Novels Hidden in Tree Trunks, Testosterone Spread Like Fertilizer, Rattlesnakes as Large as Arms, Arms That Baptize Cats, A Bunch of Guys in the Woods Talking about Something Called the Bad Thing

On the western edge of Frozen Head State Park, just before dawn, a man in a rust brown trench coat blows a giant conch shell. Runners stir in their tents. They fill their water pouches. They tape their blisters. They eat thousand-calorie breakfasts: Pop-Tarts and candy bars and geriatric energy drinks. Some of them pray. Others ready their fanny packs. The man in the trench coat sits in an ergonomic lawn chair beside a famous yellow gate, holding a cigarette. He calls the two-minute warning.

The runners gather in front of him, stretching. They are about to travel more than a hundred miles through the wilderness—if they are strong and lucky enough to make it that far, which they probably aren’t. They wait anxiously. We, the watchers, wait anxiously. A pale wash of light is barely visible in the sky. Next to me, a skinny girl holds a skinny dog. She has come all the way from Iowa to watch her father disappear into this gray dawn.

All eyes are on the man in the trench coat. At precisely 7:12, he rises from his lawn chair and lights his cigarette. Once the tip glows red, the race known as the Barkley Marathons has begun.


The first race was a prison break. On June 10, 1977, James Earl Ray, the man who shot Martin Luther King Jr., escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and fled across the briar-bearded hills of northern Tennessee. Fifty-four hours later he was found. He’d gone about eight miles. Some might hear this and wonder how he managed to squander his escape. One man heard this and thought: I need to see that terrain!

Over twenty years later, that man, the man in the trench coat—Gary Cantrell by birth, self-dubbed Lazarus Lake—has turned this terrain into the stage for a legendary ritual: the Barkley Marathons, held yearly (traditionally on Lazarus Friday or April Fool’s Day) outside Wartburg, Tennessee. Lake (known as Laz) calls it “The Race That Eats Its Young.” The runners’ bibs say something different each year: SUFFERING WITHOUT A POINT; NOT ALL PAIN IS GAIN. Only eight men have ever finished. The event is considered extreme even by those who specialize in extremity.

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