The Permission to Free-Associate

Let’s start by taking a close look at the following photograph:


Taken in January 1992 by Bruce Ryder at Dublin’s Bow Lane Studios during the mastering of Patrick Healy’s Finnegans Wake audiobook recording, this photo’s primary subject is producer Stephen Rennicks (front center), flanked by engineers Paul Waldron (left) and Hugh Drumm (right). One might gather from the context that the book Rennicks is holding is the Wake itself, that he is following along with Healy’s recitation, that he is checking for accuracy etc.

But no. Rennicks fully admits in his liner notes to having had no interest whatsoever in checking for errors:

The mastering process involved reformatting the 120 minute sections recorded on DAT tape onto 70 minute compact discs.  It was sometime necessary to end a CD in the middle of a paragraph but this was avoided where possible, and in general each CD starts and ends in a convenient place in the text. This was the only editing involved, and what you hear in the recordings is exactly how the text was performed by Patrick Healy in the studio.

(I wrote about the final product in my last blog-post. To briefly recap: In my view, Healy and Rennicks are responsible for what is arguably the worst book-on-tape of all time, notable only for its badness, viz. Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, Florence Foster JenkinsQueen of the Night aria, etc.)

Anyway, as Rennicks’ own admission reveals, the only reason to have the book open at all was to mark page numbers for track listings – not a very dynamic or interesting thing to take a photograph of, let alone devote an entire page of your liner notes to.


Let’s now lay a detail of this snapshot alongside another, much more iconic image, and then free-associate:

Reading Joyce on CameraNo points for guessing who the photo on the right is of, but notice how spookily similar the Ryder pic detail is to Eve Arnold’s legendary 1955 shot of Marylin Monroe reading Joyce’s Ulysses, how the mixing board behind Rennicks forms an angle nearly identical to the iron bars of the playground carousel behind Monroe, how a book by Joyce is opened to its final pages, how the back-lighting on unkempt hair forms a halo over a shadowed face, etc.

These similarities can only be partially accidental, for the subliminal message conveyed is essentially the same for both photos:

‘Look at this artist. See how he/she disregards the camera in favor of exploring Joyce’s wild and challenging prose. The disheveled hair and loose fitting clothes are further indications of a commitment to inner self-improvement and artistic excellence. How admirable – enviable even – to allow one’s self to be photographed so.’

This is advertisement, pure and simple, and in the case of Rennicks, truly masterful advertisement. The playground setting and the multicolored swimsuit betray something of the “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” side of Ms. Monroe that a grainy, black-and-white, coffee-cup-in-foreground photo would never have betrayed. Rennicks is smart – his liner notes are well-written and the packaging for the 17 CD box-set is tastefully designed. And it’s not entirely unreasonable to think that the recording itself has merit, especially if you don’t bother listening to it, which – let’s face it – most people haven’t; they just take Rennick’s packaging (and false claim that his is the first unabridged Wake recording) at face value.

Bear in mind too that this was very early in Rennicks’ career when he was still building his resume. It takes a seriously strategic and creative mind to come up with a scheme like this, so I don’t suppose I should have been surprised to discover last week that 22 years later, Rennicks would be photographed like so…Rennicks Regnant…accepting the 2014 British Independent Film Award (BIFA) for his contribution to Lenny Abrahamson‘s film Frank, starring Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal. It’s the one with the big papier-mache head:Frank posterI loved this movie; it’s one of the most touching studies of erratic genius and the perils of artistic collaboration I’ve ever seen, and the music Rennicks composed for it is masterfully appropriate to the subject matter. Here’s a snippet:

So surprise: Rennicks is in fact a real artist, probably always was one. His BIFA is well earned, and I very much look forward to his future work.

If you find this last revelation somewhat shocking, imagine how I felt. I watched Frank for the first time only eight days ago – less than a week after posting my review of the Healy recording – and the synchronicity alone had me basically rethinking my world outlook.

For one thing, the lyrics to the song in the above clip indicate that Rennicks did take a serious look at the Wake:

The Ginger Crouton
by Stephen Rennicks
by Lenny Abrahamson
(see addendum)

In the soup
Ginger crouton
Cover him in grease
Raw limby sausage
Bobbing poulet
Salted joints
Tuna in brine
Deep dark swell anoints
Undertow the broken ford
Back to garage help him, Lord
Eels are jellied, bloated belly
Scallops seared, wrinkled skin
Comb the cockles from his beard
Notify the next of kin
Push the baby, cut the cord
Spread the feast upon the board
Coming out, emerging
Beat the swelling, camel watch

Experienced readers of Finnegans Wake should recognize some thematic signposts here – a cannibalistic feast/fune­ral/nati­vity in an aquatic/amni­otic/culi­nary setting, etc – so maybe the 1992 Ryder photograph really is of Rennicks actually reading the text in front of him. We should at least give him the benefit of the doubt.

Whatever the case, and regardless of Rennicks’ initial motive in producing the Healy recording, it is clear that his 1992 experience had influence. Even without the thematic elements (which after all could just as easily have been lifted from Yeats, Eliot, Blake, Beckett, even the New Testament) there’s also the free-ranging associative structure of the piece itself – the deeply subjective and only covertly justified movement from image to image and thought to thought – that Joyce championed not just in Finnegans Wake but in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses as well.

It’s the kind of stuff our brains do all the time actually, and its use is one of Joyce’s most important contributions to 20th century letters. Free-association – the great modernist tradmark – scarcely existed in art before Joyce came along, and now, thanks mostly to him, narratives are no longer bound by mere plot points or straightforward syllogisms. For all that’s said about ‘stream of consciousness’ and ‘internal monologue’, these techniques wouldn’t be nearly so revolutionary had Joyce not allowed himself, his characters, and by extension his inheritors to free-associate.

Stephen Rennicks owes Joyce BIG-TIME for this, and he knows it.

At least I think he does.Frank head

Addendum – February 14, 2015:

Stephen Rennicks has posted some very helpful stuff in the comment section below – among other things correcting the authorship of “The Ginger Crouton”.

Addendum – February 29, 2016

I think the next person to ask about the Wake’s influence on Frank is Lenny Abrahamsson himself, especially with regards his latest leading lady, Brie Larson, Oscar winning star of his (and Rennicks’) latest film, Room, who’s first statement after winning the statue should make all Wakeans’ hearts quop a bit:,,20985752_20990434,00.html.

6 comments on “The Permission to Free-Associate

  1. stephen rennicks says:

    In fact that is a copy of Finnegans Wake I’m admiring in the photograph. I did read the book too from cover to cover at least four times during the process of recording Patrick Healy’s performance of the reading/recitation/interaction with or of the great work. I did care about errors and I give a view on it in the liner notes. We took an approach to making our experience of the book available and who knows if it’s been appreciated much. It wasn’t ever intended as a money-making, academic or literary project nor ever as a definitive reading. In fact I did it as a favour to Patrick so that he would act in a short film I was making. I thought it was the first recording of the full text but it seems I was wrong – apologies to everyone.
    As it happens, though I do still owe the bank BIG TIME for the project, it’s Lenny Abrahamson, the director of Frank, who wrote the lyrics to Ginger Crouton and so he’s the one who may owe Joyce, though he would have been open to many other influences as I’ve seen him reading books by other authors too – at least I think he was reading. I must check where he lifted them from but I’m sure I remember being beside him when he wrote them and they seemed to be quite easily forged in his own uniquely creative smithy. Any of the lyrics I wrote for the film are much more obviously lifted from old revivalist hymns and the backs of juice cartons.
    I owe them BIG TIME and I know it.
    By the way, is the recording really notable only for its badness? That really is such a pity.

    • JoyceGeek says:

      @Stephen Rennicks:
      Sorry about miscrediting Ginger Crouton – details happen to be important, and I should have read the credits more carefully.

      I hope enough years have passed that you can take my criticism of the audiobook with a light heart and perhaps even a chuckle. You should know that I am thrilled to finally be able to call myself a genuine fan of yours.

      But yes, I’m afraid that the ’92 recording is notable only for its badness – extremely notable in fact – and yes, it really is a pity. That it was well produced with good, thoughtful liner notes etc. only serves to polish the turd. Being an artist yourself, particularly a filmmaker, you already well know that the key to achieving quality in any work lies in the attention you give to its details. This is evident in all three of your collaborations with Lenny Abrahamson, and as the examples in my review hopefully demonstrate, Healy exhibits no such sensitivity in his “performance”. If, as you say, it was “never intended as a […] literary project”, then it should never have borne the title “Finnegans Wake by James Joyce read by Patrick Healy”. I think “Patrick Healy: Marathon Reader of Difficult Books” would have been much more fitting.

      As to the ‘big-time’ debt which we all (not just you) owe James Joyce, look to the title of this blog-post; that’s his gift. You need not credit Joyce directly, but he was incorporating juice boxes and the like into his work long before any of us were even born.

    • Cool to hear you chime in here, Stephen.

      You say, the recording “wasn’t ever intended as a money-making, academic or literary project nor ever as a definitive reading”. I’m not sure I understand — if it wasn’t meant to be even literary, then what did you mean to make it?

      Now. “Is the recording really notable only for its badness?” Yes. That is, by and large, the only notable thing anyone has ever said about it. Sorry. BUT! let me tell you my story as it relates to this recording. It is a long story, but bear with me.

      In undergrad, I took a course on Joyce. We made it through Dubliners, Portrait, and Ulysses. And I thought, if there’s ever a time, it’s now. The momentum was ripe.

      I was a Resident Advisor at the school; I lived on campus, oversaw the student housing, and hosted events. So, another RA and I decided to host a ‘Finnegans Wake Listening Party’. We got the Healey recording, and listened to the entire thing in a single sitting. It was wild.

      There were couches to lay on (a little bit of napping, but not much!), art supplies, lentil soup, coffee, and copies of the book. People could wander in and out if they pleased, but if you stayed for more than 4 hours, we made a collage of in your likeness and stuck it up on the wall (an honor bestowed upon a couple dozen people). We did not listen very closely most of the time. Even if the book was Dick and Jane, it would still be read too fast. What we did, however, was take the lightspeed ride into outer space (and inner space, I guess) with James Joyce and Patrick Healy.

      At the time, I was very unfamiliar with the Wake. I knew only a bit of Campbell’s Skeleton Key. As he describes the Wake “we hear James Joyce uttering his resilient, all-enjoying, all-animating ‘Yes'”. and I must say, taken in a single sitting, the Healey version is a freaking psychedelic rollercoaster of YES. I know that Terence McKenna called FW the literary equivalent to LSD, but more what I thought of FW then was more akin to Grace Slick’s description of DMT: “like being shot out of a canon”. The book, and the reading, was mind-blowing; the speed of the reading — lightspeed — an explosion of jouissance.

      Like Borges said Finnegans Wake is “a book that so many will have bought and probably none will have read beyond the first few pages. It seems important to read it in one sitting, all at once. How one might do this is unclear. Perhaps God could accomplish such a task.” (translated by my friend Rebecca Hanssens-Reed from one of his letters)

      Well, I’ve at least listened to it in a single siting. Twice, actually, as we repeated the event again, on the 75th anniversary of FW’s publication (in 2013). That second time, we went for a double whammy. Did the Healy recording straight through, took a day off, then listened to the entire audiobook of Johnny Cash reading the New Testament. No college campus this time, so there was a good deal of absinthe involved.

      The second time around, I was much more aware of the limits of Healy’s reading. I thought, ‘this is only one way of interpreting this text (as explosion)’ and that got me to thinking, How else could this book be interpreted, re-made? I came up with the idea to set the book to music (unabridged, of course, to create the shot-out-of-a-canon feel). Actually, it was more than an idea that night. It was a vision, one which has shaped my entire life since, taking me on a wonderful journey, introducing me to many wonderful people around the world, and having a ton of fun. Those of you familiar with my work can fill in the blanks from there…

      I launched Waywords and Meansigns, an international project setting the book to music unabridged. Each chapter is performed by a different musician, from all around the world. We have completed the book unabridged once and will release a second version, will all new musicians, in a couple months.

      Like Healy’s recording, our project is also loose and freewheeling. Some of our musicians take it very seriously, others just have fun; lo-fi recordings, professional studios; Joyce scholars, people who never read Joyce but want something fun to do… Our roster includes Joyce scholar Erik Bindervoet, punk rock icon Mike Watt, Grammy-award winning producer David Kahne, artist Kio Griffith, and many more lovely people (including Adam Harvey, Joyce Geek extraordinaire!)

      Another Joyce blogger and contributor to our W&M proj, PQ aka Peter Quadrino, has a blog post that deals with different approaches to FW: “Mainly, I think you can break these down under two categories which we may call Horizontal and Vertical… Vertically, you dig down into each paragraph, sentence, or word to extract the dense meanings and references which may then bring meaning to the rest of the page or section. Horizontally, you just stream on through the musical, playful prose and let the sounds wash over you, triggering emotional or cerebral responses as they may.”

      If you go to Healy looking for the vertical, you won’t get it. It’s not there. But the horizontal, yes. My recommendation: do it all in a single sitting.

      or perhaps you check out Waywords and Meansigns. At best, our chapters afford horizontal as well as vertical approaches. And a real commitment to the Wake’s pluralism aka Here Comes Everybody. And although I owe a debt to Healy, and to you Stephen, we give the all of the audio away for free:

      eventually we will have single sitting 40-hour Waywords and Meansigns listening parties. Or you can just organize such an event with your friends & become Finnegans Wake Godhead Borges warned about…!

      PS Adam, there is one serious review of Healy’s reading that precedes you. By Roland Saint-Laurent and entitled “The Shittiest Fucking Audiobook I’ve Ever Listened To”

      PPS Robert Amos has recorded two unabridged audiobooks of Finnegans Wake, initially for his private use, so they have not yet been released. I will help him release one of them, likely in 2017.

  2. Brian Moynihan says:

    I’ll stand up for the Healy reading as having some merit. For one thing, it was the only audio copy I could find to listen to when I decided to tackle reading Finnegans Wake, which I just started about 6 months ago and finished just recently. The only thing I *don’t* like about the recording is that Healy does go at a pretty incredible speed – so much so that I found it challenging to follow along in the text even when I was completely focused on doing so.

    The merits of the recording include:
    -People know it exists
    -It was a huge help to me in going through the text
    -There is a free version, freely available online

    But beyond that, I loved it even when it was inaccurate. Moreso, I loved it *when* it was inaccurate. Because I can’t imagine anyone picking up Finnegans Wake, reading it aloud, and not saying words wrong. The wrongness of the words is part of the point! Part of the extra meaning, part of the reader’s tangential consciousness being entangled in Joyce’s dense web of meaning(s) decades after the book was written, bringing it up to date.

    I loved it too when he would pronounce perfectly some insane 7-syllable word [OK, not so much the thunderwords – JoyceGeek can rightly claim to be the king of those 🙂 ] and then moments later came up with some crazy pronunciation of a word that every English speaker knows how to pronounce. To me that was part of the point of the Wake – that it alters the readers consciousness so much that they can’t see *any* language the same again. The strange becomes familiar, and the familiar become strange.

    So say what you want about that recording, but Mr. Healy (and Mr. Rennicks, by proxy) grabbed my hand and held it tight as we plunged through my first reading of the Wake, and I’ll always be in debt to him for that!

    PS – If there was a place online that gathered all of the free audio recordings of the Wake into one place, that would be great! I just learned recently about the Horgan Reading links online, and it is indeed a wonderful recording too:

    • JoyceGeek says:

      @Brian Moynihan:
      A link to the Horgan recordings – who would’ve thought? And on a website I’ve visited God knows how many times. You sir, are a true treasure hunter. Thank you.

      I too enjoy, and have enjoyed, the Healy recording for the exact reasons you give, but I can give the same reasons for enjoying Plan 9 From Outer Space or Jenkins’ “Der Holle Rache”. After all, feature film-making and coloratura opera-singing are every bit as difficult as reading Finnegans Wake out loud, perhaps even more so. We can allow ourselves to marvel at how, despite all, Ed Wood manages to hold our attention for the entire length of his film, or how Jenkins manages to sing an occasional note on key. I suppose I’m simply voicing my preference for Orson Welles and Lucia Popp.

      Patrick Horgan, by the way, is absolutely of this second category. Thanks again for the link.

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