Careers of Evil: On the Migration of a Three-Word Phrase from Lautréamont to J. K. Rowling, with Stops at Patti Smith and the Blue Öyster Cult

By Howard A. RodmanJune 28, 2018

Careers of Evil: On the Migration of a Three-Word Phrase from Lautréamont to J. K. Rowling, with Stops at Patti Smith and the Blue Öyster Cult
I WANT TO TALK about the phrase “career of evil,” and the way it was handed down through time.

The origin story of the phrase: it was coined by Isidore Ducasse, a Frenchman born in Montevideo, who wrote under the name of Comte de Lautréamont (a title bestowed on himself, by himself).

The publisher Léon Genonceaux described him as a “large, dark, young man, beardless, mercurial, neat and industrious,” and reported that Ducasse wrote “only at night, sitting at his piano, declaiming wildly while striking the keys, and hammering out ever new verses to the sounds.” Lautréamont died in Paris in 1870 at the age of 24.

In late 1868, Ducasse published, anonymously and at his own expense, the first (poetic, violent, transgressive) canto of Les Chants de Maldoror (Chant premier, par ***), a chapbook of 32 pages. The prose can be described as oneiric, or stream-of-consciousness, or what the Surrealists would later term “automatic writing.” In its own time, it was regarded as blasphemous.

Five additional cantos were published subsequently. Canto Three contains the following passage: “Il cacha son caractère tant qu’il put, pendant un grand nombre d’années; mais, à la fin, à cause de cette concentration qui ne lui était pas naturelle, chaque jour le sang lui montait à la tête; jusqu’à ce que, ne pouvant plus supporter une pareille vie, il se jeta résolument dans la carrière du mal…” This was rendered into English by Guy Wernham thusly: “He concealed his character as best he could for many years; but in the end, because such concentration was unnatural to him, every day the blood would mount to his head until the strain reached a point where he could no longer bear to live such a life and he gave himself over resolutely to a career of evil…”

Though Lautréamont was discovered, rediscovered, re-rediscovered — by the Surrealists, by the Situationists, by other poets (John Ashbery entitled one of his later collections Hotel Lautréamont) — it was Patti Smith who proved, in the 1970s, to be the Comte’s fiercest advocate.

Smith famously idolized Rimbaud (c.f., the “go Rimbaud!” chorus of “Land”), but was equally evangelistic about Lautréamont. As Jonathan Cott wrote in The New York Times in 1978, “[Smith’s] sensibility is one that borrows and embraces […] ideas and feelings that have appeared in […] Baudelaire, the illuminations of Rimbaud, the menacing sexual fantasies of Lautreamont, Bataille and Genet.”

But before Patti Smith was Patti Smith™ — before she was a performer in her own right — she was a fan. And among her passions was the rock group Blue Öyster Cult, part early ’70s Long Island boogie-band, part surrealist storm troopers. The music was, for the most part, straight-ahead rock (with the requisite slow numbers interspersed); the lyrics were anything but. Drawing from the “Imaginos” world built by Cult manager Sandy Pearlman, and tapping on the lyrical skills of poet/rock critic Richard Meltzer (songs like “Mistress of the Salmon Salt” and “She’s as Beautiful as a Foot”), the Cult were able to span the dead years between metal and punk. (And they could, I would submit, rock a hall harder than anyone this side of the Who.) The late Allen Lanier, the band’s keyboard player, was also for a while Smith’s lover.

For the third BÖC album, 1974’s Secret Treaties, Smith was invited to contribute lyrics (though interestingly, not on one of Lanier’s composition). She resurfaced the Lautréamont phrase, not noticeably in use between the 1860s and the 1970s, and, working from music by the Cult’s drummer Albert Bouchard, wrote “Career of Evil”:

I plot your rubric scarab, I steal your satellite
I want your wife to be my baby tonight (baby tonight)
I choose to steal what you chose to show
And you know I will not apologize
You’re mine for the taking
I'm making a career of evil

Now, as it turns out, before J. K. Rowling was J. K. Rowling™ — when she was an on-the-dole single mother who wrote in cafes — she found solace in rock ’n’ roll. Significantly: in the Blue Öyster Cult.

Her inability to support herself writing was to vanish, but her engagement with the music of her more precarious days persisted. After the Potters, Rowling decided to write detective novels, publishing them under the soon-unmasked pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The third in the series, released in October 2015, was entitled Career of Evil.

The novels’ protagonist is Cormoran Strike, an Afghan War vet turned private eye. As we learn, Strike’s mother had a thing for the BÖC — as Cormoran puts it, “She wanted Eric Bloom, lead singer of Blue Öyster Cult, but never got him. One of the very few who got away […] I was nearly christened Eric Bloom Strike.” Something Strike knows, but has never seen: his mother has a tattoo, somewhere on her lower body, that reads Mistress of the Salmon Salt.

The novel contains no fewer than 50 references to BÖC lyrics or song titles. Including the deep cuts: Rowling calls out the song “The Girl that Love Made Blind,” a slow 6/8 dance tune, originally written as part of Sandy Pearlman’s Imaginos cycle, and extant now only on a wildly obscure Albert Bouchard demo tape. (Full disclosure: Bouchard was, but is no longer, my cousin by marriage.)

What’s lovely here, and haunting: an evocative phrase is coined — or, perhaps, dreamed — by an Uruguay-born Parisian, writing under an assumed name. It submerges for a century. [1] It resurfaces in the work of another writer, also writing under assumed name. The original author was, in his own time, obscure; the bookending author, in her own time, not.

Yet via the persistence of memory, the long chain of poetry, the enduring lure of rock ’n’ roll, Lautréamont’s career of evil now haunts the 21st century, in ways he could never have imagined.

Which, of course, is just as it should be.


Howard A. Rodman is president of the Writers Guild of America West. He wrote the films Joe Gould’s SecretSavage Grace, and August, and the novel Destiny Express.  He is professor and former chair of the writing division of USC's School of Cinematic Arts.


[1] The only usage I could find between Lautréamont and Patti Smith is a mention in The New York Times, December 12, 1882, of one “Freddie Grimes, 13, an account of whose brief career of evil-doing has already been reported…” I have since been apprised that the phrase also appears in the 1901 volume The Book of Psalms by A. F. Kirkpatrick, D.D., in which the reverend details the three steps in such a career: (1) adoption of the principles of the wicked as a rule of life; (2) persistence in the practices of notorious offenders; and (3) deliberate association with those who openly mock at religion. Lautréamont would have felt understood.

LARB Contributor

Howard A. Rodman wrote the films Joe Gould’s SecretSavage Grace, and August, and the novels The Great Eastern and Destiny Express. He served as the president of the Writers Guild of America West, and is professor and former chair of the writing division of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.


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