by Mason Williams
Published by Doubleday, 1970
Found in Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon
Reading Flavors, a collection of offbeat poems, autobiography and humor pieces by Mason Williams is a bit like watching a puzzle come together before your eyes — except the final picture keeps changing, defying your expectations. First you think it’s a pleasant scene, maybe some swans dotting a sun-glinted pond — but then a few more pieces are set, and suddenly it’s a snowstorm with monsters coming into view over a mountain top — then more pieces slide into place, and all you see are vibrating swirls of color.
Williams was certainly aware of this puzzle-like effect, as he explains the spirit behind the book in the prologue:
“[This book is] a variety of different flavors that add up to one. … The flavor of something is its taste, its atmosphere, its personality, its vibrations, what it feels like.
A book is made up words and becomes in essence a single word made up of many. We write with whole books as though they were single words. We write with flavors of words as words. Jesus Christ is more or less a single flavor, as is Hitler. All of W.C. Fields life and stuff add up to a flavor, and his flavor is part of the flavor of the twenties, a part of the flavor of all America’s history.”
Williams is breaking himself apart in an effort to make sense of the whole. He’s got this singular identity, but that identity is made up of many other smaller but significant identities. And that singular identity, Williams’s ultimate “flavor,” is a tiny piece of the collective, American flavor. This idea, that an identity is both large and small at once is what keeps Flavors balanced. It also creates some great tension — Williams acknowledges that his identity, words and ideas are important but he’s also keenly aware that he’s ultimately a small piece of the greater American consciousness.
Williams begins Flavors with a section called “Minced Media,” which happens to be just that: some black and white photos without context, a photocopy of songwriter James Brockman’s obituary and poems on the innate funniness of dogs, the mouths of stewardesses and what a city is (“City is when / A bunch of people / Get together / So they can start / Being shitty to one another / For being / Too close together”).
The next section, “The Da Da Trilogy,” is comprised of five narrative poems taking place in fantastical worlds. The poems that make up the section are indeed funny and imaginative, but I think Williams works best when he’s able to insert himself more freely into the narrative — which brings me to Flavors’ most stunning section: “Autobiography.”
The title for the section has a double-meaning: The stories Williams tells are from his life, and each story also has a correlation to different automobiles Williams once owned. In “Autobiography,” Williams produces a three-dimensional meditation on car ownership (and life) that touches on so many things: individual identity, personal growth and misgivings about the American interstate system and the automobile industry.
What’s also amazing about this section are the straight facts from Williams’s life: He joined the Navy post college and served for several years while moonlighting as a folk singer. Upon completing his service, Williams traipsed around the country playing bars with an occasional stint in Hollywood writing songs for major labels. At one point, Williams snagged himself a gig playing banjo for the Smothers Brothers live comedy show. When CBS put the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on the air, Williams was hired as a writer, but left the show after some time to rekindle his music career. In 1968, he won two Grammys for an instrumental he recorded called “Classical Gas.” He continued writing for television occasionally, serving as head writer for things like The Andy Williams Christmas Special and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.
A worthwhile tidbit not covered in “Autobiography” (since it happened in 1980, 10 years after Flavors was published): Williams wrote for six episodes of Saturday Night Live, but felt creatively stifled and quit. In 1981, a feature story about Williams’s career ran in Spokane, Washington’s The Spokesman Review, and he had this to say about the show’s then-producer, Jean Doumanian: “... she couldn’t give up the controls and made it difficult for anyone to try anything creative or experimental.” One flavor Mason Williams doesn’t do? Pandering.
But back to the cars because the cars are important:
Williams loves cars — the aesthetics, the way driving makes him feel, the way a car is tied to his identity — but he’s also keenly aware of car ownership’s sinister side: giving in to the addictive nature of private transportation, helping to create even more smog in Los Angeles and contributing to an industry that Williams feels is full of greed and deceit.
The narrative in “Autobiography” begins with Williams’s first driving experience behind the wheel of a 1936 Chevy four-door sedan:
“I had started watching people drive to learn how myself, and once while everybody was gone, I thought I’d sneak a try. I got in the car and started it up. The engine seemed to be running fast, but I thought it would probably slow down after I put it in gear. I pushed in the clutch, put it in reverse and let the clutch out. The gear grabbed and the car took off backwards all the way across the yard and crashed into a tree.”
From there, Williams ties moments to the various cars he owned. As he happens upon success, he finds himself buying expensive, frivolous cars and begins feeling deeply conflicted. In between anecdotes about his career and cars, he reflects on the meaning of cars in his life, dropping his silly tone. There are so many wonderful sentences and thoughts here that I’ll just share some of my favorites:
“I live in Los Angeles and I’ve noticed that if it’s a beautiful day, everybody immediately jumps into their car to go out and enjoy it, and smogs it to death. I’m beginning to hate beautiful mornings because I know they’re going to end up ugly afternoons.”
“We traveled all over America and played for all kinds of people. Seeing it as a whole, and somewhat condensed and edited … I saw us as we really are — a nation of motorized lemmings in high gear, running for the sea.”
“Freedom of the road in America used to stand for the freedom to come and go as you please, when and whenever. But now the whole country’s enslaved to that freedom. We can’t stop. We’re like a racehorse shot full of speed to make us run harder than is good for us, to win for the owners and lose for ourselves, to win the race for only the price of the chance to run.”
Eventually, Williams decides to eschew car ownership altogether and opts for walking and the city bus. In this way, he ends up much like he began the story as a kid — without a car but carefree. One can sense the relief he feels in ridding himself of cars and the emotional, sentimental component that comes with it:
“... I’m going to try to quit driving for the Automobile Industry. I’m going to get going and leave them behind. I’m going to walk where I can, take the bus, skip it or ride a bicycle ...
I’ve always stayed out of bars to avoid trouble, so I’ll just stay out of cars, too.”
Flavors then shifts back into strange poems and humor to finish the book, a nice way to bookend things and balance out the seriousness of “Autobiography.”
And, to me, that is what the book is ultimately about: balance. The best meals balance their flavors, combining spices that complement each other to create a taste that is greater than the sum of those parts, that is something new altogether. This is what Williams is doing. He never strays too far into absurdity, but he also never wades in sentimentality. He lets the humor of his poetry, the thoughtfulness of his autobiography and the silliness of his illustrations come together to create the singular flavor of Mason Williams.
The book is best summed up in one of Williams’s final poems, "The Form of Doing":
“First you just do it
Then you do it for fun
Then you seriously do it
And then you’re done”