I didn’t hear anyone protesting, no apologists willing to leap to the great man’s defense.
Rarely have I seen an audience leaving a live performance so utterly listless. They’d come for spectacle, a chance to pay tribute to one of their heroes and here they were, shaking their heads, trying to figure out why a legendarily enigmatic artist would present them with such a haphazard, irritating evening of music.
Talent certainly wasn’t the problem. Dylan’s touring band—Donnie Herron, Tony Garnier, Charlie Sexton, Stu Kimball, George Recile—are top flight musicians but they were cruelly hamstrung by Dylan’s presence, subdued, seldom breaking out of the tightly controlled box he stuck them in. The positioning and body language was instructive: the backing band remained huddled (cowed?) on one side of the stage while Dylan crouched behind an electric keyboard on the audience’s right.
Ah, yes. That fucking keyboard. A good place to hide, Bob, if you can actually, y’know, play the goddamned thing. Dylan, remember, started out on keyboards with his high school band back in Hibbing, Minnesota. Unfortunately, someone should tell him that his technique hasn’t improved since he loudly and tunelessly thumped out Little Richard hits fifty-five years ago. I know a number of fine harmonica players have taken him to task for his misuse of their precious harp, but what Dylan really needs is a classically trained pianist to come along and slam a keyboard cover on his fingers. Repeatedly. His inexpert noodling, amplified and isolated, evoked continual winces throughout the 90-minute show.
I can understand taking a fresh approach to old, stale material, but Dylan’s re-inventions reduced beloved favorites like “Visions of Johanna”, “Shelter from the Storm” and, yeah, even “Blowing in the Wind” to a discordant and indistinguishable mush. Was there a single song off his latest (B+) album, “Tempest”? If there was, I didn’t hear it. There was a perfunctory rendering of “Man in the Long Black Coat”, an epic tune casually tossed off, a forgettable five-minute abridgement. I cannot think of one song other than the opener “Watching the River Flow” that worked all the way through.
On those rare occasions when the band finally did cut loose—during extended jams on “Highway 61″ and “Levee’s Gonna Break”—we got a hint of what might have been possible, had they, like the thoroughbreds they are, been given their head and allowed to run. I found it maddening to watch superb artists diminished and under-utilized to that extent.
Only one other recent experience in the arts left me as angry and disillusioned with a revered artist and that was a viewing of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Film Socialisme”. Like Dylan, Godard has what I think is an unhealthy contempt for his audience and, as a result, “Film Socialisme” is a futile mess, a blot on a distinguished, ground-breaking career. This attitude that you can continually flip the bird at people who pay good money and come to your work expecting to be enlightened or entertained or just not bored, exposes artists at the end of their creative rope, an acknowledgement that if you can no longer provide the goods, you might as well sell the rubes lusterless trinkets and spent tailings from exhausted mines.
I think it’s a shameful stance, childish and self-indulgent. While Dylan was under no onus to play pre-packaged, excruciatingly faithful renditions of his classics, he was obliged to at least make them recognizable versions of the originals. And though he may think of himself the consummate iconoclast and contrarian for refusing to cater to the crowd, he also revealed himself as a man no longer able to rock and roll.
I would be remiss if I didn’t sing praises of Zimmie’s opening act, the great Mark Knopfler and his stellar accompanying band.
Now this lad knows the score.
He avoided playing all but one of his “Dire Staits”-era hits (“So Far Away”), yet left those present cheered and enlivened by his musicianship, poise and presence. He teasingly responded to those dolts who like to shout out requests from the floor (do you people know how fucking retarded you sound to everyone else), and played his heart out, generously collaborating with his musicians, recognizing their virtuoso skills.
Some of us wondered ahead of time why Dylan would choose such a celebrated artist, a headliner in his own right, to take to the stage ahead of him. Both share a love of history, epic ballads, cinematic storylines—they could well be brothers in arms.
But unlike Dylan, Mr. Knopfler has never forgotten the folks out there beyond the footlights, the steep price they paid for being there.
As he left the stage, he blew kisses to the crowd.
Contrast that to Dylan’s coldly dismissive raspberries…
Pliny the Elder
It’s an ugly word, one not found in my vocabulary. Honestly, I utter it so rarely I actually had to look it up just now to find out if there was an “i” after the r or an “o”.
Got it. Commit to memory. Or…maybe not. After all, how often will I end up using it?
Some writers see bending to the will of agents or editors or the grand-all-powerful marketplace as a necessity if one wants to be a published, successful author. They see no problem letting outside parties tamper with story lines, suggest the addition or removal of characters, chapters, subplots. I read one account in Poets & Writers magazine where an author sat down to lunch with his agent, outlined a couple of different ideas for a novel and let his rep pick the one he would work on next.
My immediate and visceral reaction: what an asshole. Imagine giving someone that much influence over your writing. Now, I don’t really have a lot of hard and fast rules when it comes to my work but there are certain tenets that I live by and here are a few, strictly FYI:
1) Editors should remain unseen and unheard. They are non-entities. Spell-checkers and proof-readers and if they try to raise themselves above that lowly status, slap them down. Hard. Writing is not, repeat not a collaborative exercise. Anyone who credits an editor for saving a manuscript didn’t work hard enough on it, chickened out when the going got tough.
2) Agents have one job and one job only: protect their clients from greedhead publishers. Pitbulls when it comes to negotiating rights and contracts, pussycats when it comes to dealing with their clientele. No creative input, no vetting of manuscripts. No career advice. Here’s my completed manuscript–now it’s your job to sell it and get the best deal you can. Oh, and by the way, I expect to have final clearance over cover art and jacket copy. Make sure I get it…or you’re fired.
3) The writer is always right. There might be rare exceptions but, for the most part, the writer should know his/her work, its strengths and weaknesses, better than anyone else. Any wordsmith willing to abdicate responsibility, autonomy over a book or story, should take up flipping fucking burgers for a living. You don’t belong in our sacred guild of artisans. You ain’t good enough, strong enough…so do us all a favour and fuck off.
Now, admittedly, some authors aren’t comfortable with such a stance. Timid, insecure creatures, they need to be reassured, stroked. They’re willing to cede control of their self-esteem, their vision and integrity, as long as they have a pretty book they can show their friends and impress the proles. Their greatest dream is getting published and if that means opening themselves up to every indignity and humiliation, well, that’s part of the price they’re willing to pay.
I’ve been on-line for a couple of years now, poked about hundreds and hundreds of blogs and websites devoted to authors, established or otherwise. With very few exceptions (my friend Peter Watts being one), few scribblers take issue with the treatment accorded to writers and fewer still express the slightest antipathy toward a system designed to belittle their importance.
It’s fear, I suppose, but it’s something more than that too–an innate cowardice, a reluctance to make waves that is nothing less than craven. This fawning, milquetoast attitude I find in our little community makes me nauseous.
Other disciplines feature far more mavericks than the literary world.
How about a band like Tool, who refused to release any new albums for four years until they finally secured complete artistic freedom from their record label? I’ve already alluded to Trent Reznor, Ani DiFranco and Radiohead, musicians who tired of executives and A & R people fucking with their musical direction.
Kubrick demanded and received “final cut” throughout his career. MGM treated him with something akin to awe, enduring the lengthy hiatuses between pictures, editing suites booked for months of expensive post-production, mediocre or insignificant box office receipts…as long as he kept making films for them.
Welles wasn’t so lucky. After “Citizen Kane”, Hollywood never again granted him creative control. “Magnificent Ambersons” was butchered and rather than accept his reduced status, Welles broke away and spent the rest of his life in the wilderness, scraping together financing for films that were never made, left half-finished or suffered badly due to poor production values. There were occasional signs that his genius was undiminished–portions of “Chimes at Midnight”, “The Stranger”, even “F For Fake”.
I read an interview with Welles reprinted on the website for Senses of Cinema and, despite his frustrations, the soul-sucking necessity of expending 95% of his energies on searching for financing, he remains as defiant as ever, God bless him.
Orson was one tough sonofabitch.
But I don’t see the equivalent of these strong-willed personalities in the writing world. A willingness to break with convention, defy authority, maintain one’s independence and vision even if it costs you any chance of achieving fame and fortune.
And that says something.
After my Mediabistro rant was published, where I “burned bridges” and “committed artistic suicide”, I received a few cranky notes but I also got quite a show of support from other writers…most of whom were unwilling to go on the record with their remarks.
“Good for you”…”Glad someone’s finally taking these fuckers to task”…etc.
The point I was trying to make was that you can tell editors, agents and publishers to take a flying fuck at a rolling hand grenade and it doesn’t mean the end of the world. Thanks to the burgeoning indie movement that the new technologies are facilitating, authors can achieve a decent readership, gain fans and followers around the world and not have to jump through hoops to do it. The balance of power is shifting, the old edifice is crumbling. POD means “print on demand” but also “piss on dickheads”.
Dickhead editors. Dickhead agents. Dickhead publishers.
Poets and writers: your readers are out there, waiting for you. Take my word for it. Seize control of your career, refuse to cater and kowtow to people who move their lips when they read and have the social skills of a badger with mange.
Friends, colleagues, fellow wordsmiths: the revolution starts NOW.
Coming soon: So Dark the Night (the podcast).
That’s right, Sherron and I have been spending long hours up in my office, figuring out the software, doing sample recordings, trying out theme music. We’re laying down the tracks, baby, getting ready to release a full-length, unabridged audio version of the best occult thriller around.
Keep watching this space…