Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs and the Wrong Question

You have no fucking idea what it’s like to be me.
— Steve Jobs

While I have deliberately avoided reading most of the critical reaction to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, the broad consensus seems to be that Isaacson had the biographer’s opportunity of a lifetime, and blew it. Despite having unprecedented access to one of the most relentlessly private of public figures, Isaacson’s is a book without insight: his Steve Jobs is the same collection of contradictory impulses he has always been, a self-centered, unlikeable man who somehow created products that people adored, changing whole industries in his wake. In a world full of assholes, critics complain, what set Jobs apart? What made it possible for him to do the extraordinary things he did?

Let me say first that I agree in principle with the critics: Steve Jobs is a lousy book. I believe I arrived at the conclusion via a different route from a lot of other people, and I’ll get into that soon. First, let’s consider the argument, articulated well by Thomas Q. Brady, quoted on Daring Fireball:

I know lots of people that could be described [as “self-absorbed, immature, emotionally unstable control-freaks”], and none of them started a company in their garage that became one of the most valued corporations in the world. What made Jobs different? This isn’t really answered.

Actually it is, at least to a point. There is the asshole half of the Jobs equation, and then there is the other half, which Isaacson documents and which everyone already knows about: his fanatical obsession with spare, minimalist design; his belief that he was destined for greatness and his determination to achieve it; his tremendous persuasiveness; and his knack for infusing technology products with an underlying human friendliness. Unlike Jobs’s more unsavory characteristics, these are not common traits. Combine them with the ones above, and the story of Steve Jobs begins to seem, if not inevitable, then at least somewhat plausible.

Our civilization has spent centuries debating the origins of genius — even the definition of genius — and yet with each new transformational figure that comes along, we start the debate all over again. The truth is that genius has no formula. It cannot be predicted, reconstructed, feigned (for very long) or dissected, at least not in any way that is remotely edifying. You can quantify the factors that make it possible for people to be successful; for instance, Jobs acknowledged how lucky he was to grow up in Silicon Valley, surrounded by people who could nurture his talents and fire his ambitions. Had his parents opted to raise him in the suburbs of Wisconsin, we’d likely never have heard of Steve Jobs. But creativity — or inventiveness if you prefer, since we don’t tend to associate creativity with non-artistic pursuits — is a process that ultimately operates beneath the threshold of awareness. Indeed, it can operate in no other way; inspiration is not an algorithm.

Many people seem to have expected Isaacson’s book to provide the missing piece of the puzzle — the key that would finally unlock the secret of his genius and forever solve the enigma of Steve Jobs. They were never going to get what they wanted, because it didn’t exist. There was no “one more thing.” The enigma is its own solution.

I don’t want to give the impression that any inquiry into the inner workings of a genius is futile, or that Isaacson should be let off the hook for writing a superficial book about a man who was anything but. I merely suspect that no one could have written an entirely satisfying book on Steve Jobs, because the things people want to understand about him aren’t really explicable. What made Jobs different? How did he look at a Rio MP3 player and conceive what would become the iPod, where everyone else just saw a clunky, half-assed music player? You can posit various intermediary reasons — because he was driven to achieve perfection, because poor design caused in him something akin to physical pain — but what do those explain? What are the reasons for the reasons? The truth is that Steve Jobs did what he did because his unique blend of innate qualities, combined with the people and places that helped to shape his worldview, allowed him to. His career was the result of a confluence of circumstances so unlikely as to appear impossible. “What made Steve Jobs different?” is more a rhetorical question than an actual one. It is a way for our mathematically hampered brains to acknowledge the  baffling unlikelihood of his achievement — the incredible fact that in this world, a man like him could exist at all.

So having put that issue in perspective, what is my primary objection to the book? I will put it in straightforwardly Jobsian terms:

The writing sucks.

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Batman Revisited

June 1989: My friends and I are just a few of the hundreds of people crowding the halls at Orland Square theater, shuffling nervously with our popcorn and cokes, waiting to be admitted to a special Thursday night advance screening of Batman. The manager appears and hollers above the din: have your ticket stubs out; you need to show them again before being admitted to the theater. We grumble, but secretly we’re thrilled. This added inconvenience only confirms our belief that we’re about to witness something special: not merely a movie, but an event that really is as important as we had thought.

Most of you reading this probably don’t need to be reminded how wildly anticipated Batman was, how it seemed to promise the restoration to greatness of a character who had languished for decades in camp-TV hell (more on that later). Superman had been the movie of our childhoods: vast, sweeping, touched with reverence and just enough self-deflating humor, it sought to fill you with wonder, an ambition worthy of the greatest superhero ever. Batman, though, would be the movie of our adolescence. It wasn’t going to delight us — it was going to kick ass.

And for the most part it did. Beginning with the massive stone bat symbol that ended the opening credits, Batman was a movie of Gothic excess. From the shadowy Expressionist spires of Gotham City to Jack Nicholson’s calorie-burning turn as the Joker, everything in Batman is both exaggerated and obscured, vibrant and colorful yet hidden in shadows. Watching it joyfully that summer night, it was hard to think how it could’ve been improved: Michael Keaton was a surprisingly capable Batman (or at least a capable Bruce Wayne; as those OnStar commercials have shown, anyone with a decent chin can play Batman), the script was funny (“This town needs an enema!”), and best of all, the movie was dark-just as we knew Batman ought to be.

Except it really wasn’t.

There’s a curious disconnect between the way enthusiastic Batfans (including me) embraced the movie and what’s actually visible on screen, lo these many years later. Certainly, Batman is hardly the sunny, optimistic adventure that Superman was. Roger Ebert disliked the films partly because he always assumed that it would be fun to be Batman, as if anyone other than a borderline psychopath would look forward to donning a silly costume and placing himself in mortal danger every night. Burton, at least, wasn’t that naive, and the few moments of Batman that really qualify as “dark” are the ones where Keaton is allowed to show the toll that being Batman takes on Bruce Wayne’s psyche. We see him in his Batcave, dressed in sombre black and watching a party in his own house (Wayne Manor is more wired than the Nixon White House) from a bank of security monitors, fearfully eavesdropping on his guests; we see him rocking himself to sleep in a pair of gravity boots after a romp in the sack with Vicky Vale. Bits of disturbing ambiguity flash up here and there: when he tells Vicky that parts of rambling Wayne Manor are “very much me,” is he simply referring to the Batcave and its trove of gadgetry? Or is there still a corner of the mansion where Bruce Wayne remembers the happy childhood that was stolen from him?

Such moments are rare, and the rest of the movie is about as “dark” as a vintage Warner Brothers gangster picture, the ones that relished their anti-heroes’ nefarious exploits for 80 minutes only to gun them down mercilessly at the end (remember kids, crime doesn’t pay). From the boozy Det. Eckhart in his Columbo raincoat to Robert Wuhl’s intrepid newshound to Jack Palance as the aging-but-ineffectual crime boss, Batman calls again and again on the stylistic language of B-movie film noir, but without the deep moral ambiguity that suffused that genre at its best. In short, while it might be closer to pastiche than straight-out camp, Batman is far less dark and serious than its gloomy compositions make it appear. Even Danny Elfman’s score, still often held up as the ideal “serious” superhero movie score, is a tongue-in-cheek genre exercise; I can’t hear it without picturing vintage black and white footage of Packards and Cadillacs swinging around corners, tommy guns blazing from their windows.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. But I do think it’s time we all lightened up a bit and realized that if Batman took its title character out of the camp ghetto, it didn’t take him very far. Moreover, I realize as I get older that the original “Batman” TV series is nothing to be ashamed of: it’s superbly designed, funny, intelligent, and far more sophisticated than just about any other comedy on the box today. (It had the worst test scores of any ABC show up to that time, and wouldn’t stand a chance in hell of getting on the air now.) It also saved a comic series that was teetering near cancellation; the Batman films, for all their self-conscious distancing from the TV series, probably wouldn’t exist without it.

And finally, in one of those funny accidents of history, the whole process is primed to start up again. With Joel Schumacher having sunk the series into a new morass of cheesy puns, hyperkinetic editing, leather fetishism and banal homilies, Batman needs rescuing today far more than he did in 1989. Supposedly a film adaptation of Frank Miller’s terrific Year One series is now underway that promises to take Batman once again back to his dark, turbulent essence. When that summer comes I have a feeling I’ll be there again, my popcorn and coke (and ticket stub) in hand, once more eager to witness the rebirth of a legend.

Originally written for Entertainment Geekly in June 2003.

Godfather’s Daughter Mafia Blues

I admit it: when it comes to this kung-fu stuff, I’m pretty much a novice. I know Jackie Chan and Jet Li and Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen, and innumerable viewings of Iron Monkey have even enabled me to sort-of recognize Yu-Rong Guang. That, my friends, is about the extent of it for me. Like any acolyte, I’m acutely aware of my lack of knowledge, and so I embrace both the masterpieces and the dreck as one who can learn equally well from either.

Godfather’s Daughter—or The Godfather’s Daughter Mafia Blues to give its original Hong Kong title—lands pretty neatly in the middle of those extremes. It begins about 15 minutes before it ought to and stubbornly tries to turn its perfunctory gang-war plot into a mini-Leone-style epic. The skinny: the good crime family, headed by Li Hwa-yu (Alex Man, playing the titular Godfather), is soon set upon by the bad crime family, headed by the young and ambitious Kuyama (Ken Lo). Anna (Japanese star Yukari Oshima), the Godfather’s daughter, tries to fight back on her proud and rather dithering father’s behalf, and is aided by new gang recruit Wai (Mark Cheng), ostensibly there to keep her out of trouble. Li is eventually killed, and it’s up to Anna and Wai to Even the Score.

There’s quite a bit more, including subplots about betrayal and embezzlement that chiefly serve to illustrate how ill-suited the elder Li is to lead an aggressive criminal enterprise, though the film plainly wants us to see him as a man of honor suddenly forced to contend with savages who don’t respect the rules. Sound familiar? Of course it does. Not to worry; we’re here for the fighting, and it’s worth the wait.

The star of the film, though she doesn’t appear until the 15-minute mark, is Oshima. Oshima is cute in a pert, unglamorous way; her Dorothy Hamil cut and fuzzy pink track suit seem chosen for their plain functionality rather than their stylishness. All the more satisfying, then, to see her turn into a writhing, ass-kicking dynamo about halfway through the film. A sexier performer wouldn’t have been as effective; unlike, say, Jennifer Garner in Daredevil, who’s so physically perfect her fighting skills seem just part of the package, Oshima looks like a gal who worked to be able to do what she does, and sure enough, she works her tail off in this movie. Her first show-stopping fight scene takes place in a health club, where she leaps and twirls around the equipment while fending off half a dozen attackers, getting thrown through the occasional wall or glass table in the process. Her fighting is balletic and yet laced with savagery; it’s Oshima’s anger in the action scenes that gives Godfather’s Daughter its most intense moments.

Fighting alongside Oshima is Mark Cheng, whose laconic presence keeps the movie watchable in its dull first act. Cheng’s fighting is cleaner and less wild than Oshima’s, but he’s still terrific to look at, a worthy action hero in his own right. His main role in Godfather’s Daughter is to show up and rescue Anna in the nick of time, a routine that got a bit tiresome after a while. Still, no complaints—this is definitely a duo that keeps your attention.

Ken Lo rounds things out as bad guy Kuyama, spending the movie in an array of rich gangster clothes with one conspicuous exception, the aforementioned health club fight wherein he appears shirtless and in tight sweatpants. Lo is strikingly good looking, and I assume the decision to show him fighting nearly naked wasn’t made on a whim. Fans of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master II remember Lo, of course, as the kickboxing colonial stooge who kicks Jackie onto the bed of hot coals and then proceeds to nearly kick him to death; there was something downright scary in Lo’s fighting in that film, as even Jackie couldn’t quite anticipate where the next lightning-fast kick was going to come from. Sadly, nothing Lo does here compares to his work in that film. His chief role, as I say, is to look handsome and dangerous, and he certainly does that well enough. Even his climactic scene is a small let-down: he fights Cheng with a katana, or short-bladed Japanese sword, and the scene would’ve been more effective had we not just seen Oshima fight off another character wielding a chef’s knife in a claustrophobic Hong Kong apartment; the feral menace of that scene makes much of what follows an anti-climax.

Minor reservations aside, Godfather’s Daughter is a fine example of a pretty good HK action movie: nothing stellar, a little slow or silly here and there, but with enough great action and martial arts to make it worth your while. And the DVD, I must add, offers some great Chinglish. “Beat her as she brings us trouble!”

Pink Floyd – “Is There Anybody Out There? The Wall Live”

“Is there anyone here who’s weak?!” jeers Roger Waters in the final act of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and if the audience takes exception to his peculiar brand of misanthropic irony, their cheers give no indication. The product of Waters’ increasing alienation from—and contempt for—Pink Floyd’s enormous following, The Wall’s expansive brew of paranoia, oedipal terror, fascism and anti-war nostalgia is the symbolic capstone to the 70s prog-rock pyramid, and its accompanying live concerts remain a high-water mark of rock theater.

Though critics attacked its dominant metaphor as simplistic, even the die-hard Floyd-haters were bowled over by the presentation: a wall of hundreds of bricks was constructed steadily through the first half of the show, obscuring the entire stage (and the band) from the audience’s view and making the usual Floydian array of films, inflatable puppets, and pyrotechnics all the more vivid and powerful. At the show’s finale, when Waters bellowed “Tear down the wall!”, that’s exactly what happened: the wall tumbled down, the band took its bows, and the fans, it may be safely assumed, went out of their minds.

Of course, you’re not going to see any of that while listening to Is There Anybody Out There?, the long-awaited live recording of the Wall shows. No wall, no lasers, no animations, no nightmarish puppets of schoolteachers or castrating mothers–in fact, nothing of the grandiose invention that made the concerts so legendary. A video may yet be released (it’s rumored that the existing footage is of poor quality), but isn’t the point of a CD the music?

In this case the answer depends on your feelings, if any, for Pink Floyd in general and The Wall in particular. Critics usually slot Pink Floyd into the progressive rock family tree, home of great lumbering beasts like the Moody Blues, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but Floyd’s rock n’ roll chops put them far beyond the reach of any of those bands; they could be pretentious, but they also could plug in and rock out — did Yes ever record anything approaching “Money” or “Have a Cigar”? Today’s Pink Floyd roadshow may be as bloated and boring as that of most other aging classic rock acts, but back in 1980 they still had enough muscle left to make an exciting noise; you don’t need to see the flying pig to want to reach for the volume knob. Even playing The Wall, a show with hundreds of cues that had to be met with split-second timing, they find room to stretch out and let the music take off: “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2″ is embellished with a jivey organ solo, “Mother” is opened out with some soulful guitar work by David Gilmour and “Run Like Hell” is rougher, and better, than the more anesthetized studio version; I move that the version here replace the studio recording on classic rock radio playlists for at least the next five years.

So we admit the band can rock; but on the other hand, Pink Floyd created most of its best work under the riding crop of one of rock’s most notorious control freaks, and the fetish-like attention to detail evidenced here, with every sound bite, echo and bass fill from the album faithfully included, makes Is There Anybody Out There? more interesting as a document of Roger Waters’ theatrical élan—and his obsessiveness—than as a musical performance. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You may hate Pink Floyd and you may really hate The Wall, but the album is still the most comprehensive statement ever made about the relationship between rock stars and their audience; it’s a flawed masterpiece, just like Sergeant Pepper (another album from a stadium rock act frustrated by an audience who cheered and screamed but no longer listened). With The Wall, Roger Waters attempted to overcome his alienation from Pink Floyd’s audience head-on, by flinging his frustrations back into their faces. The wall he built across the stage dramatized his feelings of imprisonment, but in a sense it imprisoned the audience too, forcing them on a frightening journey in which every atrocity the artist reveals, from losing a parent in war to being unfairly punished by a schoolteacher, is met with applause. (A sequence planned for the Wall film would have shown the audience being machine-gunned from the stage, and still cheering.) Waters wanted his audience to understand that such adulation, however well-meant, destroyed the artist’s soul, leaving him lonely, paranoid, and unable to regard the rest of humanity as deserving any more sympathy than a hive of ants. (Or, in more Watersian terms, worms.)

That The Wall was such a phenomenal success—it was #1 for months, selling something like 13 million copies—makes the story that much more remarkable. In a sense it’s a testament to failure; Waters must have known in his heart that the cheering Earls Court crowds weren’t really getting it. No wonder, introducing “Run Like Hell,” he becomes so wound up with mock rage it’s hard to know if he’s joking: “Put your hands together!” he bellows. “Have a good time! Enjoy yourselves!!

XTC – “Apple Venus, Volume 1″

It begins modestly enough: a single water droplet lands in a pool with a bright thwop; it is followed, after a longer-than-expected pause, by an ominous plucked bass note. The next drop is answered by two more plucks, and after more than a minute of accumulation a full orchestra is picking out a pair of syncopated, stepladder-like phrases, marching giddily up and down in an eternal pas de deux. Then a horn section enters, sounding like a flock of ornery ducks, and before Andy Partridge even begins singing, you gratefully understand: this is exactly the kind of bold, sly inventiveness the pop world has lacked without XTC.

A stalemate with its former record label kept the band out of the studio for five years, during which time lead songwriter Partridge carried on anyway, writing a batch of songs that indulged the passion for orchestral sounds and textures he had begun to cultivate on the band’s 1992 release, the excellent (and much under-rated) Nonsuch. In a perfect world, Apple Venus, Volume 1 would have been in stores a good five or six years ago, but it ultimately doesn’t make any difference: this album is timeless, resting far beyond the reach of the music media’s pigeonholing clutches. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the aforementioned opening track, “River of Orchids.” Partridge weaves a vision of arboreal plenty, exhorting the listener to “take a packet of seeds/take yourself out to play” and reclaim primal nature from the cars and motorways that have despoiled it. What sets the song apart is the arrangement: a breathtaking cartwheel of overlapped horns, strings, and vocals, assembled with great warmth and wit. If Brian Wilson doesn’t wish he’d written this song, he ought to.

While none of the remaining ten tracks is as eyebrow-raising as this one–they couldn’t be–the album as a whole is the bravest and most emotionally affecting the group has ever made. Like 1986’s Skylarking, which many continue to rate as XTC’s masterpiece, Apple Venus, Volume 1 unfolds as a suite of semi-related songs, exploring the twin influences of nature and human relationships. The nature theme in particular is familiar ground for Partridge, and this album contains three of his best explorations of the subject. In addition to “River of Orchids,” there is “Easter Theatre,” a gorgeous song whose lyric recasts the nature pageantry of Skylarking’s “Season Cycle” into a bona fide spectacle in which the listeners become the audience at a celebration of rebirth:

Enter Easter and she’s dressed in yellow yolk
Now the son has died; the father can be born
If we’d all breathe in, and blow away the smoke
We’d applaud her new life.

Then there is “Greenman,” in which nature is personified in ruttingly male, rather than maternally female, terms: “Please to bend down for the one called the Greenman/He wants to make you his bride.” Musically the track is the most exciting on the album, a widescreen cinematic rush of strings thumped and caromed forward by a lively, pagan-sounding drumbeat. If ever a piece of music made you want to dance naked around a bonfire, it’s this one. (Just make sure the neighbors are away.)

That takes care of nature, but what about those pesky human relationships? Having gone through a nasty divorce during the band’s time off, Partridge, not surprisingly, has a few things to say on the subject. “Your Dictionary” is a bitter fuck-you to a divorced spouse, its two verses spat out with a most un-Partridgean amount of bile. The heavy-handed sarcasm of the lyrics (“S-H-I-T/Is that how you spell me in your dictionary?”) threaten to stand as one of his less inspired moments, but the song’s coda saves it: suddenly the key jumps from minor to major and the chords descend as delicately as a falling leaf, the lyrics now sedate and resigned: “So let’s close the book and let the day begin/and our marriage be undone.” Less troubled—indeed, outright bucolic—is “Harvest Festival,” which deftly combines (intentionally or otherwise) the nature/relationship threads into a nostalgic narrative of a schoolboy crush, suddenly dredged from memory by news of the now-grown girl’s wedding. “I’d Like That” is a silly, clever psychedelic folk song with a lolloping beat and lyrics that will make you smile or cringe, depending on how strong your sweet tooth is. The best of all of them, and a genuine breakthrough for Partridge, is “I Can’t Own Her,” a straightforward expression of regret over a lost love. It’s the most direct, personal song he’s ever written, with wrenching lyrics and an achingly beautiful score.

If Apple Venus, Volume 1 shows Andy Partridge advancing both artistically and emotionally, what about his partner and sole remaining bandmate, bassist Colin Moulding? Here he offers two songs, “Frivolous Tonight” and “Fruit Nut,” and both are enjoyable enough, but neither quite makes it to the finish line. The former is a bouncy McCartneyesque vignette about a night out with the lads, and all the drinking, bad stories, and beer-sodden camaraderie that goes with it. The simple chorus is probably the catchiest moment on the album, yet the song somehow falls short of expectations: maybe the lyric is too plain, or the humor too mild; maybe Moulding hadn’t quite worked out how much of the song was satire and how much of it was serious. More successful, though less sweet to the ear, is “Fruit Nut,” the ruminations of a garden-shed emperor surveying his tiny domain. “A man must have a shed to keep him sane,” he confidently explains, over and over, until you begin to suspect that this man is indeed, as the title suggests, a couple of sandwiches short of a full picnic. (The song also serves as a deranged counterpart-in-miniature to Partridge’s more grandiose nature songs, just as “Frivolous” serves as a simple ode to friendship next to his partner’s conflicted musings.) It’s been a while since Moulding’s songs matched Partridge’s in impact–Skylarking was the last time they appeared to work as equals–yet his presence is still integral to the band: he provides the necessary moments of thoughtful, private meditativeness amid the Partridge Theater of the Senses.

All told, Apple Venus, Volume 1 marks a considerable advance in the art of XTC: more ambitious, more accomplished, less prone to hide feelings behind arch lyrics and technical finery. Whether Apple Venus’s companion volume, a collection of noisy guitar-rock slated for release early next year, will maintain this standard is difficult to say. A straight rock album is what many XTC diehards, who hold their worn copies of Drums and Wires and Black Sea close to their hearts, have been longing for, but I’m afraid to hope that a set of three-chord bashers could rise to the thrilling heights this record achieves. Or, as Partridge says in “I Can’t Own Her”:

And I may as well wish for the moon in hand
As there’s more chance of that coming true …

Ah, what the hell. If XTC can’t bring us the moon, who can?

“Who on Earth Is Tom Baker?”

Eight actors have played the title role on Doctor Who, Britain’s decades-old time-travel series, yet the fourth, Tom Baker, is still the most famous and beloved. Just as the most Trek-ignorant tv viewer knows who Mr. Spock is, so does Baker’s unforgettable appearance–thick brown curls, floppy hat, long coat, and enormous striped scarf–stir a vague recollection, even among the jaded and uninitiated. Many factors contributed to Baker’s popularity (besides the costume), including excellent writing, strong supporting acting, and the fact that he played the part so damn long (seven years, a generation in television terms). But the true magic of the Fourth Doctor was Baker’s own. No-one captured the essential alien-ness of the character as he did, or suggested so much of the strange depths to be found in this 700-year-old Time Lord’s brain.

Baker inhabited a scene with a physical presence completely unlike that of anyone else. As Jeremy Brett would later do with Sherlock Holmes, he depicted genius as a kind of impairment, as if the Doctor’s brain ran too hot and too fast, its energy spilling over and sparking the tantrums, fusillades of sarcasm, and stony meditativeness that all served to distance him from those around him. Many of Baker’s fans (including this one) have suspected that weirdness on such a baroque scale could not be merely the product of the actor’s craft. Surely something deep within the man himself informed all those strange jokes and abrupt silences?

You don’t know the half of it. Baker’s autobiography, entitled Who on Earth Is Tom Baker?, is an eye-watering litany of suffering, embarrassment, bad decisions, and unbearable self-loathing; in fact, of all the biographies I have read, auto- or otherwise, only Charlie Chaplin’s begins in greater misery or maintains such a fever pitch of self-doubt and unhappiness. Yet, whereas Chaplin saw his life as tragedy (with a happy ending tacked on), Baker sees his for the picaresque that it is. The book is packed with witty asides—he describes his father noisily sipping tea as sounding “like pebbles being shoveled into a zinc wheelbarrow”—and steeped in a lacerating humor that its author turns on others as freely as he turns it on himself.

The hilarity starts in an Irish neighborhood of war-torn Liverpool, where Tom Baker was born and where, as a boy, he prayed that his mother would be killed by a falling bomb on her way home from work, so that, like Liverpool’s other war orphans, he might be showered with gifts and toys from America. The supreme being denied him this favor, yet this didn’t stop Baker from deciding that the religious life was for him. There was little else open to this gangly, repressed misfit: “The main thrust of a Catholic education all those years ago was self-loathing. The more you despised yourself the better you were … [I had a] feeling of self-loathing and a desire to be a slave to someone, anyone, as long as he knew what life was about and didn’t mind if you were thick.” At the age of 15, after years of dutiful altar boy service and general religious brown-nosery, he entered a monastery.

There were no beatings, no fire-and-brimstone sermonizing: just long hours of work, prayer, meditation, and endless, agonizing solitude. The novices were forbidden to make friendships, to laugh or converse idly, and the rule of modesty prevented them from so much as raising their eyes to each other; only once did Baker succeed in looking one of his fellow novices in the face. After nearly six years, half-mad with loneliness and filled with a gnawing itch to break all ten commandments (“Especially I had the urge to kill, steal and bear false witness”), he left the order.

Years of living in such self-abnegating solitude gave Baker an awkwardness around people which he never entirely lost. He completed his compulsory two-year stint in the Army without having made a single friend, and entered into a short-lived, disastrous marriage with a wealthy heiress with whom he had nothing in common and whose family despised him. Fortunately there was one avenue left to him. His performance in an Army theatrical led a fellow actor to offer encouragement: “‘[Y]ou’re terrible at the moment, absolutely bloody terrible, but there’s something in you that might make it work if you can find anyone to give you a chance.” Many did give him a chance, including Laurence Olivier, who took him into the prestigious National Theater company, where Baker played small parts and understudied big ones. His successes were modest, like those of most struggling actors, and he was supplementing his income by laboring on building sites when the BBC invited him to audition for Doctor Who.

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