Understanding Others Through Fiction

There has been a lot of talk in the media lately about the relationship between men and women and what women have to put up with.  That is an interesting and important conversation to have at any time. I want to kind of get off track for a minute and talk about empathy. 

In the novel Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami, one of the themes is that those that lack imagination are capable of evil things.  Those that lack imagination, lack the ability to put themselves in others shoes, and therefore do not develop empathy.  In the novel the main character reads a book about the Nazi Eichmann.  Eichmann never questions his morality; he just does the most efficient job that he can.  He lacked the imagination to put himself in the shoes of those that were suffering.  This theme that Murakami highlights is not original, but the way it weaves into his masterful novel is really powerful. 

Fiction can be a great way to temporarily step into the shoes of others and learn empathy for those unlike ourselves.  Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove tetralogy are some of the most entertaining books that I have read.  Commanche Moon is a bit uneven, but that is a small complaint in an otherwise great series.  I want to talk about the second novel that was written and the last novel time wise in the series.  That novel is Streets of Laredo and it is black as coal. 

I don’t want to give anything important away regarding the overall story.  However, now is where I want to circle back to the first topic.  In the book you are constantly made aware of how women are made to feel in this wild west environment.  The women in this book are given real inner lives.  They are constantly under the probing eyes of men and often under the threat of real violence.  You feel empathy for them the way they are written.  They may be living in a fictional past, but the emotions and situations are too real to ignore. 

As a man you shouldn’t need to read a western novel to understand what many women go through on a daily basis.  However, fiction can make you dwell on something that you might only temporarily ponder otherwise.  I am not pretending that reading can solve all of the worlds problems or even most of them, but it can’t hurt to take temporary journeys into the lives of others through literature. 

Illusion and Artistic Control

Spoiler Alert:  I discuss the ending of the show Deadwood in this post.

One of the hardest things in art, as in life, is knowing when to let go of something.  If you worked on something a little harder could it have been better?  Can you work something over until that original spark and passion has been extinguished?  I’ve made mistakes on both sides of that equation at times.  One has to have enough of an ego to see a project through, but one also has to not let the ego get in the way of letting things happen naturally.  Things are going to turn out like they do.  At some point control is only an illusion.

If you are making a record for instance, unless you record every single instrument yourself and do all the engineering yourself, assuming you even know what you are even doing at every step of the way, things are not going to turn out exactly as you planned.  As soon as other’s hands get on something it is going to change no matter how carefully planned your original intentions were.  Although it is true that this can occasionally be your downfall, if you are open to new ideas you might just end up in some magical place that you hadn’t planned.  Even if you are controlling as many factors as possible, you still run up against the limitations of personal talent and technology.

One of the reasons I find most session players so dreadful is that they are not confined by as many limitations as most people.  They can almost play or do anything musically that one can ask of them.  The problem is this usually leads to something that is imitative.  It’s usually technical ability over passion. Passion most often comes out of struggle.  Soul and originality is most often created in art and music in that struggle between real world limitations and the endless potential of the imagination.  In that space is where something new is most often forged.

There are outliers and freaks whom can seemingly do anything with ease, and can still do it with soul, but those people come at the rate of only a few in a lifetime.  If we relied on people like that our record collections and art museums would be very small indeed.

Sometimes things end seemingly prematurely, but in hindsight seem to almost end as if touched by perfection.  It’s at times like these that the universe almost seems to be speaking to us.  As much as I wish Lou Reed had made ten more records, if you listen to Junior Dad, his final song on his final album, it’s almost impossible to imagine a more perfect end to his career.

The Smiths’ ended their last album with the song I Won’t Share You.  “I won’t share you / With the drive and the dream inside / This is my time.”  It’s like their unconsciousness knew they were going their separate ways even before their conscious minds did, even though everyone claims that the recording sessions for that album were amicable. Plus, as always, Morrissey has razor sharp wit.

I was thinking about the show Deadwood today.  Deadwood is a show that not only tells the story of that town, a real historic town fictionally imagined, but also tells the story of how society comes to order itself.  This show that was canceled before the shows creator, David Milch, could finish the story that he wanted to tell.  Unlike most westerns the “bad guy”, if you could call him that in a show filled often with moral ambiguity, rides out of town unharmed.  His character represents the large corporate interests in American life that come in and destroy the natural balance of things in a community.  To many fans, myself included, this ending was originally completely unsatisfactory.  Not only did it not fulfill what we had come to expect in a traditional story arc, as nothing had really been tied up, but those of us that followed the show knew that this was not the way the creator had intended it to end.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a perfect ending for that show.  The show’s ending is truthful to the very real outcome that we tragically see too often in America.  Too often we see corporations come in and destroy the balance of our communities, only to get off with little if any harm done to them.  Also in a strange example of life imitating art, or vice versa, the corporate suits killed off the show in the same way that George Hearst had destroyed the balance of the town.  Every time I watch the ending of that show I have knots in my stomach, but as with the rest of the show, it rings true.

One should work as hard as possible to make something the best that they can and stay as true to their vision as possible.  However, one should also remember that control over the outcome is often an illusion.  Don’t let that scare you.  It could very often be the thing that infuses it with magic in the end.

Monty Python and Black Sabbath

Between our sound check and our show last night, in Denton, we had a couple hours to kill.  We stopped at the amazing Recycled Books there in the town square.  First of all it was bad judgment on my part to even enter the store.  There is no place that will siphon money off of me faster than a book store that also sells records.  While we were in the store I thought about asking Shinyribs if we could put a tip jar out later that night just to even out the damage that I knew I was about to do to my wallet.  For you see there is nothing I love more than books and records.  If someone pulled up in a Lamborghini and someone pulled up in a Pinto, albeit with a copy of The Queen is Dead and A Good Man is Hard to Find in the passenger seat, I know who I would be riding with; it wouldn’t be in the Lamborghini. 

Anyway, I was able to summon up some monumental restrain out of my soul, for maybe the first and last time, and keep it down to two purchases.  I got a book of interviews with Monty Python and the first Black Sabbath album.  Other than the fact that both are from England and that both were ground breaking in their respective fields, there isn’t really a straight line that you can draw from one to the other.  But I believe it is that exact kind of blending of arts and ideas that is important to staying creative and inspired. 

One should be able to enjoy listening to synth pop, heavy metal, and folk music in the same day.  One should be able to watch David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and a children’s movie and be able to pull something meaningful from both.  Especially in this day and age of technology, when so much has already been done, the only chance in hell that you have is of possibly putting two things together that have never be paired off before.  And the truth is I can find nothing more boring that being part of a subculture and living by a set of finite rules. 

When pop music, or any art form, was new, it was probably Ok to sequester yourself in a certain genre as that genre was coming into formation.  The first punk albums were revolutionary, but very quickly became formulaic.  You might need someone with strong beliefs and rules to start a movement, but very quickly those rules become a prison. 

It still blows my mind today when someone is in a country band, or a rockabilly band, or whatever.  That would bore me to tears.  You are basically just recreating a lesser version of something that has probably reached it’s high water mark in years past.  Even the bands that are best at these kind of genre tributes seem to me to be more actors playing roles, than living breathing artists. 

That’s not saying that whatever art form you choose, painting, music, film, doesn’t need some kind of guiding principle.  I am in a rock n roll band and a country\soul band, but even those are starting points and marketing descriptions.  In my rock band we might throw in an African gumboots riff, and in my country\soul band a stray Led Zeppelin riff might suddenly appear.  If you really listen to the great bands, other than the ones that were the initial formers of a certain genre, they are usually way more weird and eclectic than they first appear.  Johnny Marr was throwing in Chic riffs into the Smiths.  The Rolling Stones, what many people see as the quintessential rock band, have done country, reggae, disco, and soul music.  I think it is very important to have a definitive outlook and operating principle, otherwise your art can become bland and have no point of view, but don’t allow that to become so static that nothing new can ever enter the fold. 

The great directors have almost always challenged themselves.  Werner Herzog has done documentaries and feature films.  David Lynch has directed Eraserhead and the Straight Story.  Even though one of those is a horrific nightmare of a film and the other is a G rated Disney movie, you could easily say that both of them had moments that were Lynchian.  Both of those directors have very clearly established identities and personalities, but within that frame they have a lot of room to move. 

There are always those that are the exception to the rule.  AC\DC is a prime example in music.  Larry David’s brilliant comedies always have a certain thread and personality tying them together.  However, even in what they are both doing they are originals.  They are not simply recreating something from the past. 

If I go out to a bar and I see a country band, unless it is the greatest country band in the world, if their fourth song sounds like their first, I usually am heading home for the night.  I understand that having your thing makes it easier to market, and occasionally having your thing means you have done something original, but usually it means that you are unimaginative and boring. 

There is usually always someone that is smart enough to pitch even the weirdest, most surreal, and most complex art to others.  It can often be hard to find that person if you are an artist.  But they are out there and those people are essential.  Artists need people that can translate what they do to get others to seek it out for the first time, as very few artists are good at that sort of thing.  However, usually this pitch is just a starting point, a way to simplify the complex thing that you have made, so that others can find an entry way.  Anyone that has art that really CAN be described in a 30 second sales pitch is probably boring.  A one note song in a symphonic world, full of mystery and wonder.  

Trouble In Mind

One of my favorite films is the film Trouble In Mind.  It is directed by Alan Rudolf.  I also love the version of the title song that is sung by Marianne Faithfull.  It is one of those rare pieces of music I can leave on repeat.  They both fill me with dreams and that certain kind of sadness that is comforting at the same time.  You are down but there is a strange beauty in the world.
Tonight I am playing Seattle and just for a minute I can kid myself and escape into the dreamworld that movie creates.  Reality slips away into the shadows, if only for a moment. 
Alan Rudolf is dialing in supernatural frequencies in that film.  Like the best of cinema it’s characters and setting reflect our own inner selves and yet somehow give us a new look at the larger world.  It is a heightened and stylized reality, but somehow feels more true in spite of this.  I am always glad to stumble upon such a thing. 

Trouble in mind, I’m blue
But I won’t be blue always

The Creation of the American Dream

The Jews not only created Hollywood, but also created the American dream.  So goes the theory of Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.  I’ve mentioned Gabler before.  He is probably the best writer I know when it comes to talking about how entertainment has had an effect on the American imagination and culture.  He also wrote the definitive book on Walt Disney.  It’s called Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.

In Gabler’s book on the Jews in Hollywood, he talks about how many Jews came to America and were not included in mainstream WASP America.  They were excluded from this world of wealth and power by ignorant stereotyping.  The early movie industry, and California during this time period, were things that were open to anyone.  They were virgin territory.  The Jews got into the movie business because it was a place they could find success because there were not cultural barriers to stop them.  This book is really interesting and the stories of all of the early studio heads is tremendously fascinating.  All of Gabler’s books are worth reading.

What was one of the most fascinating things in Gabler’s book, and something I would like to dive into more deeply, was how the modern day American dream was created by these people that were originally barred from it.  The Jews, more than anything, wanted to be accepted into the mainstream.  Louis B. Meyer, one of the early studio heads, even claimed that his birthday was on the 4th of July.

They didn’t want to be seen as outsiders so, even though most of the major studios were run by Jews, they didn’t make Jewish movies.  They also did not want to anger the country, which was much less accepting of taboo subjects than we are now.  In the early film industry they created what we think of as the traditional Hollywood films; movies that had clear moral codes which showed the best of American values.  These movies usually had clear good and bad guys.  Often these films showed the loving traditional American family.  These movies showed the America that the Jews wanted to be a part of.

For the first time in history Americans were going to the theater.  What they were often seeing reflected back at them in the early days of American cinema was an idealized version of who they were.  These films helped to solidify in the American mind, which was a nation of immigrants, the notion of the American Dream.

I find it interesting that this dream, which every American knows, was helped along the way, if not outright created, by people that were originally outside of the acceptance of the mainstream.  This dream which informs the way we think about ourselves, how people vote, so much of our cultural life, was simply invented in large part.  That’s not to say that it has any less power because of it.  It’s just that if we are to go forward, it helps to know this, as we think of how we treat each other and what our relationship is to one another as a people.   All dreams come from the minds of humans.  How do we make those dreams a reality for more people, as we travel down the road?

Roads Still Yet to be Traveled

I’ve really become interested in electronic music lately.  Some bands that I’ve been listening to lately have been Kraftwerk, Daft Punk, OMD, and Book of Love.  I also love the Knife, though their music fits less moods than the others, as they are more abrasive and confrontational.  I also love the music on Johnny Jewel’s label, especially the band The Chromatics.  I’ve always loved synth pop.  I grew up on bands like New Order.

I’m interested in the idea of people getting emotion out of technology.  Also some of the best pop songs are in this genre.  Bernard Sumner from New Order can write endless melodies that never leave your head.

Although I grew up with bands like New Order, Electronic, and Depeche Mode, some of my current interest has been driven by the films of Nicolas Winding Refn.  He uses this music to great effect in films like Drive, Bronson, and Only God Forgives.  He understands that although this music is very synthetic on one hand, it is also capable of great emotion.

If country and folk music, which I also love, evoke pastoral settings, electronic music reminds me of the city at nighttime.  That’s not to say that electronic music can’t also be pastoral.  Brian Eno’s 70’s album Another Green World is an album that brings nature to mind more often than not.  Kraftwerk’s Autobahn album also has moments like this.  Although I love songs that have a message and am a fan of great lyrics, sometimes music is wonderful when it just creates space for dreams.

Haruki Murakami’s book After Dark creates a surreal dream like version of the city at night.  When I read things like this I often picture certain pieces by Kraftwerk and the Chromatics as being the perfect soundtrack to these worlds.

I grew up as a fan of the pop song.  More recently I’ve begun to be as interested in music that is non verbal.  Music that is non verbal has to create emotion and thought through pure sound.  This can be music that is instrumental or music that has the vocals obscured through production techniques.  Non verbal to me can even be bands that sing in foreign languages, where I can’t understand what they are saying, and the voice becomes just another emotional texture.  Often in electronic music, especially as you see with bands like Daft Punk and Kraftwerk, only a few simple phrases will be repeated throughout a song.  Even though you understand what they are saying it is open to interpretation when combined with the music.  The words become almost just another sound that feeds into the music and vice versa.

Although I write in the pop song format, and it’s still my favorite format, there is something to be said about music that is non verbal.  The human imagination is a powerful thing.  In the place of words we will often find that our dreams take over and place meaning into things that may or may not be intended by the artist.

I’ve mentioned before how David Lynch liked using grainy digital video for the movie Inland Empire, because he wanted the human imagination to fill in the space that the imperfect images left.  I think a lot of electronic music, the kind that is non verbal or almost non verbal, does this same thing.  It allows for interpretation and dreaming on the part of the listener.

Well there are many forms of instrumental music, many of which I love, the sounds created by electronic instruments create a different headspace.  Again it is often, but not always, more urban and futuristic.  Some bands like OMD, who write pop songs and instrumental pieces, create a retro futurism.  It’s like the sonic version of a film noir that takes place in the past and the future at the same time.  One of my favorite albums right now is their album Dazzle Ships.  It is an album full of mystery, ideas, and dreams.

Too often I think people let cultural or tribal things get in the way of exploring new worlds.  People are more open now to new musical experiences than ever before.  Sometimes though, there still exists a certain tribal instinct that gets in the way of people enjoying different forms, based solely on what they might find “cool” or acceptable in their group.   The human imagination can go anywhere and should be given as much room to roam as possible.  Don’t listen to anything but your own gut.  There are many roads still yet to be traveled.

Take Me For a Ride

As much as I love art house cinema, documentaries, and movies that are serious and aimed at adults, sometimes it’s good just to escape for a couple hours.  There is nothing wrong with a fantasy movie, a summer blockbuster well done, or a comedy full of cheap laughs.  I am completely happy to let my mind wander sometimes into other people’s imagination. 

     I don’t care how fantastical a movie gets, so long as it sets up credible rules within whatever world that is created.  The worst thing a fantasy or science fiction movie can do is to do something that takes you out of the film and put you back into real life.  This would be done by breaking whatever rules the filmmakers have already laid out to establish the credibility of their fantasy. 

      A good example of this would be something that happened in one of The Lord of the Rings movies.  Now as a whole I actually really love these movies.  They are well done entertainment that I can watch whenever they come on TV.  Right after the Hobbit came out I rented the entire trilogy while I was sick.  Although I had seen them many times, I felt myself entertained all over again.  However, here are two scenes; I think one is in the second movie and one is in the third, where Legolas, the elf character, appears to skateboard.  Once is on a shield and the other is on the back of some kind of monster they are fighting.  As soon as you see this, the magic of the movie is temporarily broken as you realize it doesn’t fit this world.  It seems like a ploy to appeal to extreme sports fans or something. 

     Now I get what you are probably thinking.  There is no such thing as fucking elves, it’s all made up anyway, and who cares?  On one hand you are completely right.  On the other hand, if you are attempting to take the viewer on a journey, you need to suspend the disbelief of the viewer during that journey. 

     It may seem like I am nitpicking, or talking of something of little importance.  But I think that this really goes for any kind of fiction writing.  The imagination is a big place and you can take people anywhere, whether it’s a seedy nightclub in a realistic setting or a spaceship with talking aliens.  You need to establish rules for whatever world you are creating and stick by them.  Even if you are doing something highly impressionistic and surreal there is usually some kind of dream logic at work that makes sense even if the viewer or reader can’t quite place their finger on what that is.  People want to go someplace that they have never been, just make sure that while you are taking them there, you don’t let them off the ride for a minute.