Sir Ian McKellen Reads Kurt Vonnegut’s Letter to High School Students: Make Art and “Make Your Soul Grow”

Author Kurt Vonnegut was possessed of a droll, unsentimental public speaking style. A son of Indianapolis, he never lost his Hoosier accent, despite lengthy stints in Cape Cod and New York City.

Actor Ian McKellen, on the other hand, exudes warmth. He’s a charmer who tells a story with a twinkle in his eye, altering his voice and facial expressions to heighten the effect. (Check out his Maggie Smith.) Vocal training has only enhanced his beautiful instrument. (He can make a tire repair manual sound like Shakespeare.)

These two lions may have come at their respective crafts from different angles, but Sir Ian did Vonnegut proud, above, as part of Letters Live, an ongoing celebration of the enduring power of literary correspondence.

The letter in question was penned the year before Vonnegut’s death, in reply to five students at a Jesuit high school in New York City, regretfully declining their invitation to visit.

Instead, he gave them two assignments.

One was fairly universal, the sort of thing one might encounter in a commencement address: make art and in so doing, learn about life, and yourself.

The other was more concrete:

Write a 6 line rhyming poem

Don’t show it or recite it to anyone.

Tear it up into little pieces

Discard the pieces in widely separated trash receptacles


A chance for Xavier High School’s all male student body to air romantic feelings without fear of  discovery or rejection?

Mayhaps, but the true purpose of the second assignment is encapsulated in the first—to “experience becoming” through a creative act.

This notion clearly strikes a chord with Sir Ian, 17 years younger than Vonnegut but by the time of the  2016 performance, closing in on the iguana-like age Vonnegut had been when he wrote the letter.

Should we attribute the quiver on the closing line to acting or genuine emotion on Sir Ian’s part?

Either way, it’s a lovely rendition.

November 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don't make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana. 

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you're Count Dracula.

Here's an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don't do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don't tell anybody what you're doing. Don't show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what's inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

(Ian McKellen’s other Letters Live performance is a fictional coming out letter from Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, from a gay character to his Anita Bryant-supporting parents.)

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How B.B. King & Stevie Ray Vaughan Dealt With Breaking Strings Onstage Mid-Song: A Masterclass in Handling Onstage Mishaps

Playing music live onstage invites any number of mishaps. Breaking a string may not rank that highly as one of them for most professional guitarists. But the experience can still be temporarily embarrassing. It interrupts the groove and forces the kind of creative adaptation not every player appreciates on the spot. Even if you’ve got a perfectly-tuned guitar offstage—or, better yet, a guitar tech to hand you one from a rack of tuned-up guitars—you might only want that guitar: that exact guitar and no other.

If you’re B.B. King, that guitar has a name. While there were many Lucilles over the blues master’s career, when he stood in front of an audience of tens of thousands at Farm Aid in 1985, he wasn’t about to relinquish the current Lucille for a back-up instrument just because he broke a string in the middle of “How Blue Can You Get.” His tech rushes in, but instead of handing him a guitar, he hands King a high E string, and the legend proceeds to restring Lucille without so much as dropping a line of the song.

It helps that he’s got an ace band behind him, but it’s still a bravura display from a performer who wouldn’t get rattled in front of an audience three times this size. (Though he did once say that watching Peter Green play gave him the “cold sweats.”)

As attached as King was to his signature Gibson 335s, so was too Stevie Ray Vaughan to his Fender Stratocasters, especially to the guitar he called his “first wife,” better known as “Number One.”

It’s not got as pretty a name as Lucille, and may not have as colorful a backstory to go with it, but the specs of Vaughan’s vintage '63 Strat were just as integral to his tone and playing style as Lucille’s were to King’s. In the video above, we see Vaughan break a string on Number One while playing an intense solo on “Look at Little Sister” in Austin in 1989. He opts for the switcheroo instead of changing a string mid-song, but what a switcheroo it is.

First, he tears through the solo with a string hanging loose, then he launches into the chorus, churning out the rhythm after a two second-pause to grab a new guitar from his tech, who attaches his guitar strap while Stevie chugs away. If you turned away for a moment, you’d be surprised to find him playing a different, number two, guitar. And, as in B.B. King’s onstage-string-change, if you closed your eyes, you’d never know anything went wrong at all, a sign of how a true professional deals with the unexpected.

via Twister Sifter

Related Content:

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Stevie Ray Vaughan Plays the Acoustic Guitar in Rare Footage, Letting Us See His Guitar Virtuosity in Its Purest Form

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Pretty Much Pop #3: CONFORM with Yakov Smirnoff

Is media trying to brainwash us into being ALL THE SAME? Are the excesses of the mob scaring us into conformity? And does this in turn keep us from being actually creative, with healthy relationships?

Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt muse on cultural homogenization and a few sci-fi takes on forced sameness and then bring out our first celebrity guest, beloved comedian and now psychology Ph.D. Yakov Smirnoff, who tells us about growing up in a repressive society and his fears that political correctness and a lack of appreciation for the "reciprocal opposites" necessary for authentic communication is leading us in that direction. We conclude with a bit of host-ful response.

We touch on Cat's Cradle, Aladdin, Rosanne Barr, The Twilight Zone, Brian's wearing a Cubs hat in Missouri, and performing comedy in the U.S.S.R. as well as various sensitive audiences here. Will you not join us and dress as Devo every day?

Here's that article that comes up on Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s terms "karass" (voluntary, organic grouping) and "granfalloon" (inherited, basically meaningless grouping).

No, we are not a politics podcast, but sometimes when we reflect on the dynamics involved with our being entertained,  politics is hard to avoid! You may enjoy listening to The Partially Examined Life (Mark's philosophy podcast) discuss Adorno on the Culture Industry, or perhaps their discussion of the world of technological unemployment.

Get more at Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Google Play. Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is produced by the Partially Examined Life Podcast Network.

Follow Yakov:  @Yakov_Smirnoff. Not enough Yakov? Well, of course there are scads of YouTube clips and other podcast appearances that he's done that you can check out with a mere web search, but if you want to hear EVERY SINGLE WORD he said to us, we did post an entirely unedited version of the interview for $5 supporters at

Moonlight Strikes 107,000 Solar Mirrors & Creates a Portrait of Apollo 11 Computer Programmer Margaret Hamilton

In the middle of the Mojave Desert, Google has created a high-tech tribute to Margaret Hamilton, the lead software engineer of the Apollo space program. Google writes: "The tribute was created by positioning over 107,000 mirrors at the Ivanpah Solar Facility in the Mojave Desert to reflect the light of the moon, instead of the sun, like the mirrors normally do. The result is a 1.4-square-mile portrait of Margaret, bigger than New York’s Central Park." You can learn more about Hamilton and her contributions to the 1960s space program here.

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Martin Amis Explains How to Use a Thesaurus to Actually Improve Your Writing

Among all novelists currently working in the English language, how many pay the attention to style Martin Amis does? And among all novelists who have ever worked in the English language, how many pay the attention to style Vladimir Nabokov did? No wonder that the former yields to none in his appreciation for the latter. "Amis has always wanted to see Nabokov as someone resembling his own critical self — essentially, a 'celebrator,' a man whose darkness and severities have been overstated," write The New Yorker's Thomas Mallon. Amis has explicitly taken note of "Nabokov’s disdain for sympathetic identification with fictional characters, and also of his belief that artistic effect was everything, the descriptor more important than the described."

Nabokov’s declaration that “for me, ‘style’ is matter,” Mallon writes, "remains almost fearfully thrilling to Amis." And it is with one of Nabokov's principles on style that Amis begins in the Big Think video above. "There is only one school of writing," he quotes Nabokov as writing. "That of talent." You can't teach talent, of course, "but what you can do is instill certain principles," one of them being "the importance of ugly repetition." But then, "repetition has its uses, and anything is better than trying to avoid repetition through what they call 'elegant variation'" — the use, which Amis dismisses as pointless, of "using a different word when there's no change in meaning."

Most of us commit elegant variation with thesaurus in hand; hence, it would seem, that particular reference book's reputation as the tool of second-class writers and worse. But Amis himself uses the thesaurus, and heavily, as a means of "avoiding repetition of prefixes and suffixes" — he cites Nabokov's changing the title of Invitation to an Execution to Invitation to a Beheading — "as well as rhymes and half-rhymes, unintentional alliteration, et cetera." People assume "thesauruses are there so you can look up a fancy word for 'big,'" when in fact they serve their true purpose when you come to a point in a sentence "where you're unhappy with the word you've chosen not because of its meaning, but because of its rhythm. You may want a monosyllable for this concept, or you may want a trisyllable."

A writer like Amis, or indeed Nabokov (who learned English after his native Russian), will also "make sure they're not visiting an indecorum on the word's derivation." This requires nothing more than the humble dictionary, to check, for example, whether dilapidated can describe a hedge as well as a building. (It can't, and Amis explains why.) "When you look up a word in the dictionary, you own it in a way you didn't before," says Amis, who estimates that he does it himself a dozen times a day. "It's very labor-intensive. It takes a long time, sometimes, to get your sentence right rhythmically, and to clear the main words in it from misuse. And all you're winning is the respect of other serious writers. But I think any amount of effort is worth it for that."

Related Content:

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Bryan Magee (RIP) Presents In-Depth, Uncut TV Conversations With Famous Philosophers

Note: We woke this morning to the news that Bryan Magee, academic and popularizer of philosophy, has passed away. He was 89. Below, we bring you a post from our archive that highlights Magee's many televised interviews with influential philosophers. You can watch them online.

Bryan Magee comes from a tradition that produced some of the twentieth century's most impressive media personalities: that of the scholarship-educated, Oxbridge-refined, intellectually omnivorous, occasionally office-holding, radio- and television-savvy man of letters. Students and professors of philosophy probably know him from his large print oeuvre, which includes volumes on Popper and Schopenhauer as well as several guides to western philosophy and the autobiographical Confessions of a Philosopher. He also wrote another memoir called The Television Interviewer, and philosophically inclined laymen may fondly remember him as just that. When Magee played to both these strengths at once, he came up with two philosophical television shows in the span of a decade: Men of Ideas, which began in 1978, and The Great Philosophers, which ran in 1987. Both series brought BBC viewers in-depth, uncut conversations with many of the day's most famous philosophers.

You can watch select interviews of Men of Ideas and The Great Philosophers on YouTube, including:

At the top of the post, you'll find Magee talking with A.J. Ayer, a well-known specialist in "logical positivism," about the development of, and challenges to, that philosophical sub-field. Two philosophers, relaxed on a couch, sometimes smoking, enthusiastically engaged in a commercial-free back-and-forth about the most important thinkers and thoughts in the field — watch something like that, and you can't possibly think of now as a golden age of television.

Oodles of free philosophy courses, many thought by famous philosophers, can be found in the Philosophy section of our list of 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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How Kurt Cobain Confronted Violence Against Women in His “Darkest Song”: Nevermind‘s “Polly”

In 1991, Nirvana changed pop music with NevermindWe know this, and we know—or can confirm with a few clicks—that “Polly,” the 6th track on that album, sits at its very center. We can call to mind, or pull up in seconds, the lullaby chorus melody and the sound of Cobain’s five-string, pawn shop Stella acoustic guitar. And we may even remember the lyrics, or some of them, elliptical, deeply disturbing descriptions of a girl named “Polly,” from the point of view of someone doing horrifying things to her.

"Polly," as Evan Puschak, better known as video-essayist Nerdwriter, explains above, in fact describes an actual occurrence near Cobain's hometown of Aberdeen, WA: the abduction, rape, and torture of a 14-year-old girl, written from the perspective of her abductor, rapist, and torturer. “Of all the dark songs” Cobain wrote, says Puschak, “and there are a lot to choose from, the most disturbing to me is ‘Polly.’” The incident happened in 1987; Cobain first wrote “Polly,” then called “Hitchhiker,” in '88.

“It’s a hard song to talk about,” Puschak admits, but an impossible song to ignore, given its place in one of the biggest-selling albums from one of the biggest bands in the world. And coming from Cobain, whose outspoken activism defined his public persona, it’s a song we must hear in the larger context of a writer perpetually horrified by sexual violence and misogyny, and unable to look away and ignore it.

“Disgusted,” writes Juliet Macy at Go Mag, after “some of his fans spread anti-gay messages in tune to his music,” Cobain left a message for them in the liner notes to Incesticide: “If any of you, in any way, hate homosexuals, people of color or women, please do this one favor for us—leave us the fuck alone. Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.” He meant it, and left an even more furious message for in the notes for In Utero.

“On rape culture," Macy writes, "Cobain asserted, ‘The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women how to defend themselves. What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape. Go to the source and start there.” “Polly” represents such an attempt to go to the source, Puschak argues, to get closer than we'd ever want to get. Its spare arrangement helps create its sense of intimacy. “’Polly’ is basically Cobain and his guitar.”

Musically, this was not the kind of vulnerability Cobain was at all comfortable putting on display. Two years later, when Nirvana went on MTV’s Unplugged, he “worried the band didn’t have the grace to pull off something so subtle,” as Mike Powell notes at Pitchfork. Notably, one of the songs Cobain chose to play in that exposed, uncomfortable setting venue was Leadbelly’s “In the Pines,” a song written from the point of view of a man interrogating a woman; a man who may be a father, jealous lover, or something much more sinister.

In every version of this old, vaguely tragic American folk-blues, from its first, 1929 recording as “Black Girl” by Peg Leg Howell to “In the Pines” to wordier, and whitewashed, versions by country pickers and crooners, a sense of menace hovers, near or far, fraught with intimations of rape and murder, the klaxons the Rolling Stones rang to announce the end of the flowery, folky '60s. Bands in the '90s culled from a much darker strain of the country's earliest popular music than Pete Seeger, or even Dylan, and "Polly," in its old-timey instrumentation and blues simplicity, touches into this undercurrent.

In “Polly,” Cobain “forces an emotional identification with evil, to stop us from suppressing this brutality,” Puschak says, searchingly, or “to stop us from evading it.” Perhaps. Maybe he's asking us to empathize with a monster, but he also pushes us to look at a disturbing American tradition—one evoked by “In the Pines” as well: murder ballads, songs, books, and films about stalking, possession, manipulation, and rape (see the Stones’ “Brown Sugar”): a near-constant aestheticization of violence against women.

This kind of excavation was lost on many of the fans who bought Nevermind—those same fans whom Cobain came to loathe. His evocations of dark Americana were part of a general trend of the time. In 1994, when the Unplugged episode aired, many Nirvana listeners of the band were also howling, “Do you want to die!” to the The Toadies hit “Possum Kingdom,” another song that reached into southern U.S. folklore to tell what seems to be a story of rape and torture in the woods from the perspective of the rapist and torturer. (The song's video explicitly plays with serial-killer film tropes.)

"Polly" is neither mournful nor playful, and it decidedly does not rock like “Possum Kingdom.” Almost totally acoustic, drumless, delivered in a mumbled monotone in the verses, and an off-key dead-eyed sing-song in the jarringly catchy choruses, it lulls and repulses at the same time. Like every other artist, Cobain had no control over what listeners did with his music. After Nevermind’s success, reports emerged of two men committing a rape while singing the song. Cobain replied, “I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience.”

But he could not have made his own intentions clearer, or the burden he felt to confront a culture that would not listen to women. "A man using himself as an example toward other men," he once said ruefully, "can probably make more impact than a woman can." Ironically, given how much he came to resent Nevermind's massive success, one of its effects was to show cynical male record label executives that rock stars could be edgy and also outspoken about sexism and rape culture and also sell millions of albums: which helped open doors for an explosion of female artists and bands throughout the decade who issued searing punk manifestos and righteously angsty alt-rock against the patriarchy.

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33 Songs That Document the History of Feminist Punk (1975-2015): A Playlist Curated by Pitchfork

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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