A Perfect Union of Contrary Things is the interesting but flawed new authorized biography of Maynard James Keenan, written by journalist Sarah Jensen. Jensen has known Keenan for some 30 years, and she may very well appear in the book; more than one “Sarah” graces the pages, and in Jensen’s eagerness to include everyone who may have influenced the rock legend, she hurls at the reader endless lists of names that make as much of an impact as a drop of rain in the ocean.
The book is at its best while setting the scene, immersing the reader in Keenan’s world. Jensen delights in the sights and sounds of the Michigan countryside and the litter in the Boston streets. Fans looking for a peek behind the stage curtain — how members of Tool, A Perfect Circle, or Puscifer get along or insights into the writing of their songs — will be disappointed. Keenan has long considered that kind of information to be too personal for journalists, and he did not make an exception for his authorized biography.
The book follows his passions: his love for his friends and mentors, the underground bands that he listened to, the authors he read, and the finer points of making wine. Jensen follows these interests rather too faithfully; for example, the section on Keenan’s vineyards will be too shallow for oenophiles and too long for literally everyone else. The book is hurt by its hero worship, so uncritical as to be ridiculous. “He sings of the fire’s spirit, of the taste of ashes on the tongue, of the truth on the other side of the mirror.” Some of the prose is so purple that Brutus tried to stab it.
And yet, the subject is interesting, and Jensen has a good nose for anecdotes. Casual fans will learn a lot about the rocker’s life, and diehards will be interested in the writers and thinkers who influenced Keenan’s intellectual development. We have selected five passages that we hope will illuminate the book without giving too much away — after all, the livelihoods of more than one person may depend on the sales of A Perfect Union, and we hope, if you like what you read here, that you will consider purchasing the full account. You won’t find any juicy gossip, but you’ll find a better understanding of one of the modern titans of rock.
Click ahead to see the five surprising things we learned from A Perfect Union of Contrary Things.
Growing up, Keenan’s favorite band was Kiss
“His seeming obsession left [stepmother] Jan and [father] Mike concerned about the influence of a band whose name they’d heard was an acronym for Knights in Satan’s Service.”
On the surface, there seems to be little in common between the over-the-top, almost juvenile theatricality of Kiss — with their studded leather pants, platform shoes, and white painted faces — and the bare-bones authenticity cultivated by Maynard James Keenan. But his love affair with the New York rockers spanned decades. It didn’t stop at posters and albums: in high school art class, he created a clay sculpture of Gene Simmons’ head complete with extended tongue, and his fandom was so overwhelming that it eventually led to a long conversation with a local pastor. By the time he formed Tool, his collection of Kiss memorabilia was large enough to take up most of a wall in his Los Angeles loft. There are other loves, of course — one of the joys of the book is the way Jensen marks each time period by the bands Keenan is listening to — and all things considered, Devo and Swans were probably bigger influences on Keenan’s music. But Kiss was his first love, and we never forget our first loves.
Keenan Was the Most Accomplished Athlete in the History of Mason County Central High School
“Jim became the first in the history of the school to earn 12 varsity letters.”
It helps when your father is the wrestling coach, of course, and it helps when you attend a smaller school. But make no mistake, Keenan was a great athlete, earning a place on the varsity team from his Freshman year onward in wrestling, track, and cross country. This is the section of the book where the title of A Perfect Union of Contrary Things makes the most sense, when James Keenan (he wouldn’t become Maynard for a few more years) was still trying to figure himself out. While his free time was spent as an artsy weirdo, in the hours after school ended, he was an unapologetic jock. Later on, he was the fastest recruit in his army training group, a distinction that would eventually earn him an appointment to West Point (which he declined). Keenan’s early childhood was heartbreakingly difficult, and while I wouldn’t wish those challenges on anyone, they certainly make him a more sympathetic character; if Keenan had been born into an affluent, stable environment, his combination of charisma, creative genius, and athletic prowess might have made him positively unbearable.
Keenan Once Walked from Boston, Massachusetts, to Scottville, Michigan
“Not to be outdone, Maynard resolved to forgo transportation entirely. If on some fine morning he set out from Massachusetts, put one foot in front of the other, he knew it wouldn’t take long at all to reach Scottville — a mere 800 miles away.”
Inspired by stories of explorers they had heard during their high school history class, and born out of a desire to escape the city of Boston, Keenan and his childhood best friend, Kjiirt, resolved to adventure home for the summer. But while Kjiirt used his bicycle, Keenan’s competitive nature pushed him to travel by foot. His main source of entertainment was the classic fantasy novel Little, Big, written by John Crowley, whose AEgypt novels later inspired Keenan to do more than just combine the letters ‘A’ and ‘E.’ Little, Big begins with a long walk, and Crowley’s vision of hidden worlds and repetitive structures had a profound effect on Keenan. “As I read, I thought the book might just be a metaphor of me walking … But on some level, I knew it was about my journey toward something even larger.” After the two young men arrived, they had their pictures in the paper, and Kjiirt told reporters the journey had been inspired by the news that Twinkies could now come with strawberry filling: “We decided if they can actually improve perfection, we can do anything.” For his part, Keenan saw the journey as a philosophical turning point in his life. “The walk to Michigan planted the seed of OK, that felt right. Let’s go further.”