Nick Hornby, Eraserhead, and Light in the Darkness

The plain state of being human is dramatic enough for anyone; you don’t need to be a heroin addict or a performance poet to experience extremity. You just have to love someone.

That’s the real con of shock-art: it makes out that it’s democratic, but it’s actually only of those who can afford it.  And some of us, as we get older, simply find that we don’t have that much courage to spare any more.  Good luck to you if you have, because it means that you have managed to avoid more or less everything that life has to throw at you, but don’t try to make me feel morally or intellectually inferior.  

– Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby is a writer I respect.  I have read several of his books, seen several movies that are either based on his books or that he has contributed to.  I’ve also found some great music through him.  The first time I heard Rod Stewart’s Mama You’ve Been On My Mind, one of my favorite recordings, or Teenage Fanclub’s Ain’t That Enough, another song I love, it was because they were featured in his Songbook.  Any intelligent music fan should read that, even if they don’t agree with parts of it, because it is intelligent writing about music.

However, Hornby has been on my mind lately as I think about art as a whole.  The second quote is from a chapter in Songbook where he is criticizing Suicide’s song Frankie Teardrop.  I’ve never heard that song.  However, he compares it to the movie Eraserhead, which I love.  Basically he is saying as he grows older there is no place for dark disturbing pieces like the song.  He has also had other quotes, like the other above quote from How to Be Good, another book I really liked, where he seems to be making the case that the everyday is more dramatic than the kind of art that is more extreme, that features more extreme existences.

Although I think one can make the case that the everyday is dramatic, noble, something worth writing about, that it can even be subversive given the right context, I don’t believe this negates darker works or makes them any less valid.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more I disagree with Hornby on especially something like his second quote above.

Now before I go any further, this doesn’t mean that things that are normal, full of joy, and happy aren’t worthy subjects of art. I think that they are.  But I also think that anything can be a valid subject for art, given that whoever is creating it is talented and looking for truth.  The dark and extreme have created many of our masterpieces. Look at the history of literature old and new: Macbeth, Candide, The Stranger, The Road, Slaughterhouse-Five, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Divine Comedy, Heart of Darkness, and on and on.

Whether or not you agree that all of that all of the above are worthy, I can’t imagine anyone of intelligence wanting a world that was without those.  Why would someone not want the same in music, in film, in art?  Such works give us a way to interpret the world as some of it unfortunately is.  They can critique the world and ask that it be better.  They can also provide a light in the darkness, as there can be a happiness in feeling that some other soul sees something the way that you see it.  Certain kinds of darkness can actually be comedy. They can help us to laugh at the things that we are afraid of.

As I look out at the modern political world, even if in my personal life there is a great deal of joy and happiness, even if I see good in the world, even if I see that long term there are reasons for hope, I can’t help but feel a good deal of modern life feels closer to Eraserhead than a feel good rom-com.  As multinational companies destroy the planet, as the prison industrial complex keeps many minorities and poor people disproportionally in jail, as people starve while others live like they are in the guilded age, especially because now we can see with ease what is going on all around us, I can’t help but feel the world to be an absurd surreal place at times.

Modern culture is so often full of meaninglessness, often in the guise of things that are supposed to make us happy, but rarely do.  Most people want to be happy, but many are not.  Many want light, but spend too much time in the cave.  In order to reach that light first one must find their way through the darkness, learn what is holding them back.  You can close your eyes if you want, but that isn’t going to change anything.

Trailer from Eraserhead:

Have All the Good Songs Been Written?

Have All the Good Songs Been Written?

As I was writing the last piece, which had to do in part with how we let nostalgia ruin new music, my girlfriend just happened to be reading the above article over at NPR’s website.  It is worth a read.  The article is about how we shouldn’t let familiarity harden into cynicism when confronting new music.  (The same should go for any art.)  The article also makes the point that each generation discovers something for the first time, even if those that are older feel too much familiarity with what is out there.

One of the things that bugs me is all of these people that are comparing and contrasting songs to each other on the internet.  Artists have been stealing from each other since the dawn of time, and definitely from the beginning of pop music.  It is just the instantaneous ability to pull up anything from any time period that is new.  The Rolling Stones, who I love, started out ripping off the old black blues musicians, and so on.  There is a difference between stealing something and referencing something.  Often songs reference other songs or lines from movies or whatever as a way to pay tribute to things that were important to the writer.  This can actually give a song depth.  No ideas are completely new.  It is the combination of old ideas in a new way that moves a form along.

Sampling can be different because you are actually using the exact thing that one is referencing.  However, even this can obviously be done creatively enough that the older piece of material can not be ascertained immediately.  Even when something is immediately recognizable, if it is combined with new elements it is new.  (I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be paying the older artist, as they should.  However, that is a different argument.)

The only time I have a problem with stealing in music is when it is done by a new band that adds nothing new to the equation. You see this all of the time right now with these retro-soul bands.  In years past it was different kinds of music.  They might not be stealing anything directly.  However, they often create music that sounds exactly like it could have been created in a past era, without adding any kind of original personality to the mix.  Often this music sounds like a faded copy, kind of like the original, but without the excitement of self-discovery.  There are so many new bands that are just museum pieces.

What would you rather hear:  A song that steals something from the past directly, but contextualizes it in a way that makes it new, or someone doing something that is technically new, but really just a faded artifact of the past?

Add on:  If you take a Jackson Pollack painting and make it part of a collage in an interesting way, you have might have something new on your hands.  If you paint something that is exactly the same as a Jackson Pollack painting, but just slightly alter the colors and swirl patterns, you are just ripping him off.  The first would technically be stealing, but the second example is more egregious in my mind.  

How Technology Affects Art

I’ve been thinking lately about how technology affects the quality of art being made.  Now art is not monolithic.  Just because digital recording became the norm doesn’t mean that analog gear isn’t still used.  Just because photography was invented obviously doesn’t mean that there stopped being painters.  But I am talking about trends in general.

I have mentioned numerous times that I have spent a lot of time listening to The Cure lately.  I want to use two of their songs as an example.  I am going to post YouTubes, but it would be much better if you could listen to higher quality recordings to really get the details.  First I want you to listen to Play For Today from their album Seventeen Seconds, which at the time was a low budget recording (However you are listening, I would recommend headphones):

Now I want you to listen to a song called Sleep When I’m Dead from their album 4:13 Dream album.  This is a song that was written much earlier in their career, in what many fans feel was the best period of their career.  I purposely picked this song because it was written at an earlier period.  Although there are probably reasons this didn’t make a record, I wanted to get the argument that Robert Smith isn’t as good of a song writer as he used to be out of the way.  I’m not trying to talk about taste in writing or performance, merely the technology to capture each song.  (I personally like all periods of The Cure, though I have slight preferences for some.)  Anyway, here is the song:

Now it is impossible to know what creative decisions went into recording each song.  However, what is going on in each song is part of a bigger trend in music, so that I don’t think you can just base the sound of each recording to the taste of the artist.  I would also imagine that the budget was much bigger for Sleep When I’m Dead, given the fact that The Cure has gone on to be a band that can play stadiums.

On the earlier song there is much more clarity to the way it sounds.  Each instrument is discernible no matter how loud or quiet they are in the mix.  There is also much more depth of field.  When things get it seems like they are farther away.  In a lot of modern recordings when things get quieter, part of the instruments seem lost in a way that does not happen naturally in reality.  The newer song has less clarity and less depth of field, despite probably having a bigger budget for recording.  This is also despite the fact that technology has progressed.  I’m not doing this to knock later period Cure.  Too many times fans of any band develop sentimental attachments to artists that don’t allow them to view their newer work clearly.  I personally prefer the older song out of the two, but I am happy to hear any new material by an artist that I like.  Plus, there are newer songs by The Cure that I prefer to certain older ones.  It just comes down to the material itself.  However, I feel that the way the earlier material was recorded gives it a better chance of flight.  It has more sonic ambience and atmosphere in just the recording itself.

Anyway, I’m using music, but this really could apply to many art forms.  Although there are certain movies that look great when they are filmed digitally, there is something about the way film looks, which is a longer and more expensive process, that often wins out on average.  It always, at the end of the day, comes down to the choices that each individual artist makes and how they use a medium that matters most.

Technology often makes things easier and less expensive.  This is good because it allows more people to express themselves.  The downside to technology is that sometimes less of what is made, as a percentage, reaches a certain level of quality.  It is easier to record than ever before, which means more recordings are being made.  This is a good thing.  However, even average quality recordings of earlier time periods usually have a higher standard that average quality recordings today.

I’m not trying to make a point necessarily.  There are people on both sides of the argument.  Both have valid points.  I only am trying to get you to think about how technology can affect art both good and bad.  Technology in art, as it does in life, can often make things better and worse at the same time.

Blonde On Blonde and the Elusive Nature of Art

Different Versions of Blonde On Blonde

Today I was listening to the mono version of Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde.  I then stumbled on the above article, which tries to document the different versions of that album and there reasons for being.  Even if you are not an audiophile, with truth be told, even though I love records, I am not, there are reasons why this should interest you.  Often we think of a piece of art as having a definitive version.  However with albums, there are slightly different versions in different countries.  Even in the same country, especially in the 60’s when it was common to have stereo and mono versions of the same record, there are different mixes, track listings, cover photos, etc.

Music isn’t the only art-form where there can be many different versions.  Many times painters or other kinds of visual artists will make more than one of a piece.  Japanese woodblock prints are a kind of art-form that were meant to have multiple versions.  The movie Alexander, by Oliver Stone, one of my favorite films, has the theatrical cut, the directors cut, and a sprawling two disc The Final Cut.

There is arguably a best version of a particular piece of art.  There may be an intended version of something.  However, there often isn’t a “definitive” version of something.  The movie Blade Runner is an interesting study.  There is the original theatrical cut and there is also a director’s cut, among other versions.  The director’s cut is obviously the intended version by the person that had the biggest hand in creating it.  However, I know many people that are passionate about this movie, that prefer the theatrical cut.  Which version would you deem “definitive”?

Art, like the human experience in general, can be hard to pin down.

Paul Simon’s Graceland Acclaim and Outrage

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Paul Simon Graceland Acclaim and Outrage

One of my favorite albums is Paul Simon’s Graceland.  I have always liked Paul Simon in general, but my particular love for this album is also largely rooted in the African music that is part of it.  Paul Simon was attacked politically breaking the boycott of Apartheid South Africa and recording with South African musicians.  Apparently there is a documentary that details this story called Under African Skies.  I have not seen the documentary, although now I would like to.  The above article tells the political story behind the album and the documentary.  It is an interesting read.

I am personally glad that this album exists.  This album has meant a great deal to me.  It has also caused me to investigate further and purchase music by African artists.  I have read before where some people have said that Simon was committing a kind of cultural imperialism, but I have no patience for such things.  Anyone that understands music knows that artist are constantly borrowing, stealing, and learning from each other.  It is how the form gets moved forward.  Everything comes from somewhere.  Even artists that create things that seem shockingly original are simply combining ideas in ways they haven’t been before.  That and technical innovation are what creates new sounds.

On the political side of things I still think Simon comes out clean.  As far as I know he treated the artists well and paid them well for their work.  (There is some controversy over his collaboration with Los Lobos on the album, but none that I can find with the African Musicians that he worked with.)  I think Simon’s own view on the political nature of what he did is correct:

What was unusual about Graceland is that it was on the surface apolitical, but what it represented was the essence of the antiapartheid in that it was a collaboration between blacks and whites to make music that people everywhere enjoyed. It was completely the opposite from what the apartheid regime said, which is that one group of people were inferior. Here, there were no inferiors or superiors, just an acknowledgement of everybody’s work as a musician. It was a powerful statement – National Geographic

I also find it interesting that for all of the clamor and noise over a work of art at the time of its creation, that time has a funny way of sometimes turning everything but the art itself into dust.  That doesn’t mean that political arguments over a piece of work have no merit, especially as they relate to current political struggles.  Also, overtly political works have a different amount of relevance to political struggle than works that are art for art’s sake, especially if those struggles are still going on in some fashion.  However, as time progresses we humans and our struggles disappear and all we are left with is what we created.  Graceland is till fairly new and yes there are still struggles going on in South Africa, but they are different ones than what was going on during Apartheid, even if they are related to that time period.    Lately I have been reading parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Dante wrote this as a political exile.  While knowing the politics behind it can make certain parts of the text more meaningful, Dante’s political struggle has no bearing on our present reality.  Yet the text is still with us in all of its power.  It is very possible that problems of race will long outlast Graceland, but the opposite may also be true.  All one can do is to follow their own compass and try to speak their truth, time will sort everything else out, one way or another.

Bjork, Marina Abramovi, and MOMA

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I’ve mentioned before that Bjork is doing a career retrospective at MOMA.  Here is an article in Rolling Stone about that retrospective.  It also features some clips as well.  This is definitely a show I would check out if I lived even remotely close.

Speaking of Museum of Modern Art, one of my favorite documentaries of recent years was about a show there.  That film is Marina Abramovi The Artist is Present.  This movie is fascinating and definitely worth your time.  Here is the trailer:

The Privileged are Taking Over the Arts

The Privileged Taking Over the Arts

Above is an interesting article from The New Republic which talks about how more and more popular artists are coming from a background of privilege.  (And really this could be for any art form.) It is an argument that I can’t help but feel has some merit.  That’s not to say that one’s art should be judged from where they came from, as at the end of the day the work is all that matters.  However, it may well be another reason why less and less music seems to speak truth to power.  I think it is a topic at least worth thinking about.  I am only just beginning to think about this topic, and will write more on this at some further point.  This article is definitely a worthwhile read.

Hat tip to William Michael Smith