Sunday, July 20, 2008

When you were great

Was there ever a time when you were great? I think there was actually, even if I'm not sure who exactly I'm talking to at this point in time. I've long been of the view that musicians - at least rock and pop musicians - are touched with something remarkable for only a short time, and its what they do with that, then and later that matters most. In it's simplest form, I'm talking about individuality - and in doing so I'm talking about musicians who contribute something more than just their playing (though that can be part of it as well.) We've all seen bands who are looking for the latest wagon to jump on (which is probably why it's called the bandwagon!) and there are whole record company departments devoted to this. Yes, I know there's sometimes something in the air - whether in Laurel Canyon in '68 or the lesser Free Trade Hall in '76 - but whether this or not, doesn't seem to make too many odds. Individuality shines through, and you've only got so long to mine that seam whether it comes to you early or late. Of course it doesn't mean that all good music is made by teenagers and twenty-somethings, just that if you spend enough of this time doing what you should be doing (living, thinking, writing about it) then you'll probably be good for life. It allowed Morrissey to always have a store of thoughts, ideas, tropes and concepts to come back to for "You are the Quarry" or Bowie to wipe the memory of his dreadful eighties with the half decent albums that came after.

They say poets are best when they are young - though the current poetic career path is such a hard climb you wonder how many would get anywhere in five years, ten years whatever. A book of poetry could have a ten year curve to it - the writing, the acceptance, the path to publication, the wait for reviews and prizes, and finally, the sense that this has found a readership, however small and select, and, if its any good, or if tells a new story, or finds a new way of telling an old story, then it will have an impact on what comes next. But what if you start late?

I can well believe that one's world view is formed early, that one's influences are embedded in adolescence, and that one's preoccupations are at least beginning to form before your twenties, whether they are sex, or work, or politics, or nature. Yet for a fiction writer to build on that framework? There's life to be lived, for a start. The writing doesn't always come first, and sometimes comes very last. It's why there's more than a few good fiction writers who began after their children were over; or after they gave up some other career; or had a breakdown of some sort. Is the older fiction writer - telling stories with all the experience at his/her control? - as valid a model as the young poet, the young songwriter? If so, are these lives mirror opposites - with the "store" that a poet draws on later in life only a simulacrum of what's before, no different than the rough drafts, failed attempts and abandoned manuscripts of the young fiction writer? Or, is this the very stuff, the very thing, that the writing life is both afraid of and needs - the essential individuality that every artist must possess if they are going to do anything worthwhile.

An old friend has asked me why my music never progressed - or rather, he wondered if that was in fact the case - that the "sound" I make is the same, near enough, now as twenty years before. It has the same voice, the same-ish instruments, and the same homemade production. I was trying to explain to him, that since I'm not a "proper" recording artist/musician, I'm less interested in sounding like everything else on the radio, and more interested in some exploration of a small plot of land that I've made my own. I'm not even sure if its real - or whether, my musical interest, is itself a simulacrum, a version of myself that is forever going back over certain things: music as art project on the one hand, music as psychological examination on the other. I wasn't sure what I was writing about, and so I went back to some of the music I recorded in 1984-5, and yes, I'm there in my more recent stuff, almost exactly as then. The same preoccupations, the same aesthetic questions (or: if they're not questions - the same answers). I've recently been trying to synthesize my poetry into a single book-length volume, and though there's progression, there's also it's opposite. A hall of mirrors or a version of myself that's all about closing the door on a room and looking only at what's inside. I don't think that poetry and songs are necessarily adolescent, but I wonder, if away from a gaze that expects a progression - an increased sophistication with each iteration - something different can go on, than otherwise. When we look at the career of an Emily Dickinson or a Nick Drake, we are saddened that they never had the success that the work deserved; but part of me wonders if we need more of these hidden careers, the disappointment providing an opportunity to concentrate not on the career, or even on the work, so much as the inspiration that makes the individuality.

When you were great, I never knew your work. Now I do, I'm not so sure...

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