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.