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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2002/06/28
by Jesse Jarnow

BRAIN TUBA: California Dreamin’ / California Demise

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser is probably an Important Book, in
big, honkin’ capital letters. It has come up so frequently in conversation
lately that the phrase I’ve started to use to describe it is "cultural
touchstone". It seems to have sliced neatly across most of the social groups
I interact with. Recently, I sat on a porch with a large bunch of people,
and it seemed that everybody had read, was planning to read, or was
presently in the middle of reading it. (Me, I just finished it this
afternoon.) It’s rare that that happens, I think. It happens to films,
occasionally; albums, once in a while; but, books? Hardly ever these days.
Perhaps it’s just the circle of folks that I run with. Perhaps not.
Reading it has provoked split feelings in me. On one hand, yes, fast food
culture is disgusting and terrible and nasty and evil and ugly and
everything else Schlosser accuses it of being. On the other hand, it’s
interesting to look back on the southern California society that Schlosser
traces as its origins. Shortly before reading Fast Food Nation, I
finished The Nearest Faraway Place: Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys, and the
Southern California Experience by Billboard editor Timothy White. The
book – or the first three-quarters, anyway – is a remarkable cultural
history of the circumstances that spawned The Beach Boys.
If southern California is the starting point for Schlosser, then it is the
ending point for White. White moves back several generations before that,
discussing the Wilson family’s existence in the midwest, their movement
(along with an entire generation) to the promised land: the sweet smelling
orange groves and rolling hills of Los Angeles. He articulates the social
values that deemed certain things as desirable and others as despicable. The
end result (though White never explicitly connects the dots) is that one can
take a song like "Surfin’ USA" and strip it down. What makes it cool? Why do
(or why did) those sounds hit that nail on the head? What values made those
sets of values relevant?
"Less is a bore," Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown famously wrote in
Learning From Las Vegas, their 1972 ode to the burgeoning strip of
neon signs and casinos in the middle of the Nevada desert. "It is the
ultimate consumer technology," Schlosser said of the slot machines. "[They
are] designed to manufacture not a tangible product, but something much more
elusive: a brief sense of hope." And there is something beautiful about
that. Cruel, yes, but also a wonderfully marvelous aesthetic achievement.
"The music, flashing lights, and sound effects emitted by deciding with
mathematical certainty how long you will play before you lose." (Schlosser
That’s kinda neat. It’s the same reason that I’ve always sorta liked the appearance of massive
clusters of fast food joints. And it’s the same reason that I’m
fascinated with the seemingly magical constructions of smells and flavors.
"I inhaled deeply, and one food after another was conjured from the glass
bottles. I smelled fresh cherries, black olives, saut onions, and shrimp.
Grainger’s most remarkable creation took me by surprise. After closing my
eyes, I suddenly smelled a grilled hamburger. The aroma was uncanny, almost
miraculous. It smelled like someone in the room was flipping burgers on a
hot grill. But when I opened my eyes, there was just a narrow strip of white
paper and a smiling flavorist." (Schlosser 129) So, yeah, neat is the word.
And that all happens in New Jersey, that foul stretch of the Turnpike, where
acrid flames shoot out of metal valves bordering the gigantic mechanical
fortresses, noxious fumes floating off and winding around the pollution
coming out of the back of my own car. There’s a contradiction, of course. If
I’m driving past that particular stretch of factories, then I’m heading off
to some semi-exotic locale — a show in Philadelphia, an adventure in the
south, something pleasantly removed from the humdrum of the everyday. It
means I’m off looking for greener, cleaner pastures, and leaving my dirty
wake in the New Jersey sky.
Fast Food Nation is a vast entanglement of conspiracy theories. Or,
rather, they’re more than theories. Schlosser goes a long way towards
proving, or at least pointing out, the (relative) truth behind many
anti-corporate myths. Automobile culture was virtually invented in the years
around World War II. General Motors purchased privately owned public
transportation systems in major cities, and shut them down one by one. In
1947, GM was found guilty of violating federal anti-trust laws. "The
executives who had secretly plotted and carried out the destruction of
America’s light rail network were fined $1 each. And the postwar reign of
the automobile proceeded without much further challenge" (Schlosser 17).
And so America was transformed into a society undergridded by a highway
system, culture (including the emerging fast food chains) realigning itself
around the long black strips, with the fast car as the central symbol of
undying freedom purring and tearing down the center of it all. The thing is,
I do more than believe that. I feel that. To me, the open road is an
amazing thing, just moving out and through a world of possibilities. There
really is nothing like getting in a car and driving. Later this week,
I – and about 65,000 other people – will be doing just that, zipping (and
then sliding and then crawling) to the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee. And
it’s gonna be fuckin’ great. Well, the drive will be, anyway. No promises on
the festival.
There is a freedom to this, but try to imagine traveling the country
without cars. It’s part of the reason why the world Robert Hunter’s
characters inhabit seems so foreign: it is a world almost entirely without
cars. Hunter looks to the train (or foot or hoof) for his central metaphor
of travel, and this keeps things almost pre-modern (as well as in a certain
socio-economic bracket) — and almost purer and simpler, in a way. He speaks
of a country whose skeleton is made by train tracks. It’s not quite the
same. It feels… quaint. There’s a very deep romance to it, sure,
but I don’t think I’ve ever seriously thought about riding the rails, or
even seeing the country by train, when I could instead be driving.
In any event, there’s a paradox and a certain amount of tension in freedom.
That tension, that brief – or extended – sense of hope, is what is so
appealing. Those highways cover a lot of ground.
Jesse Jarnow isn’t feeling human

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