The Baseball Desert

Friday, July 07, 2006

A Cure For Gravity

Tonight I am going to see one of my favourite artists - the aformentioned Joe Jackson - in concert at the Bataclan in Paris. This will be the sixth or seventh time that I have seen him, and it never gets old. I am an unconditional fan of his studio music, but seeing him live adds another dimension to the experience. He is never afraid to re-arrange his own songs, do cover versions of other artists' songs and generally innovate in a context which often lends itself to nothing more interesting than a carbon copy of a band's studio output.

Outside of the music itself, Jackson is also blessed with a wry sense of humour and a rare gift for analysis of what his music means both to himself and to his fans. His autobiography, "A Cure For Gravity", which covers his life - both personal and musical - up until his band had its first hit, is a great chronicle of a musician struggling to be heard. In the absence of any tracks to link to, I thought I'd share some of Jackson's observations on his craft:
At least three different people I can think of have been quoted as saying that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. In other words: music takes us to places that words cannot, and maybe that's the whole point...

[speaking about hearing the theme music from the movie Exodus as he walked by someone's parked car]:
I was transfixed by this music. It was sad, but strong; noble, but with a yearning quality which brought tears to my eyes. Everyone else was partying, [it was a special naval celebration day in his home town of Portsmouth] but I felt as though I'd discovered a secret truth: that beneath it all was sadness. Not that the happines and the pomp and circumstance were false, but that the sadness was always there, in a delicate balance with it. It suddenly seemed to me unbearably poignant. And I knew that no-one else would understand.
And no-one could, or ever will. When music hits you like this, it cuts through logic and soars like a pole-vaulter over the walls of your rational mind. It reaches you in a visceral way that is unique to your own experience. No two people hear the same music.
Of course, music per se is not always the issue, and it's impossible to completely separate any kind of art - or any kind of product - from the preoccupations of its time. I like to say that I have no agenda. I say it because I don't run with any particular gang, and because agendas are often no more than defensive postures we take up against other people's agendas. But I do have an agenda of sorts, or a guiding conviction, and I may as well be honest about it. Music is either an art form or it isn't, and I say that it is: the greatest of the arts, and one of the closest approaches we mortals have to the divine. And try as I might, I can't seem to reduce it to the level of the matching handbag that goes with this year's jacket. Nor can I inflate it to the level of tribal warfare.
So, presumptuous though I may be, I try to speak on behalf of the goddess, or the muse, of music itself. The best music is universal and transcends fashion. Not in some high-flown intellectual way, but in a way that's humble and honest and real. There's no right path for everyone.
I had to get my priorities straightened out. Because the only way to win, at least for us musicians, is by keeping the faith. Keeping our faith with the one thing that has really mattered all along: the music.
We have to follow what excites us, interests us, challenges us, and makes us feel alive, and put aside whatever does not; and if we can't make a living out of it, we should hang on to our day jobs. We must be wary of facts and figures and pundits and PR, of critics both internal and external, and of all those cocksure movers and shakers who tell you they have their fingers on the pulse; they don't have a finger on yours. If you're doing what makes you feel alive, no matter how obscure or uncool it might be, you can be Gulliver while they're all just Lilliputians, trying in vain to tie down your shoes.
And this is how you win.
[speaking about the first concert he did with a really great band behind him]
Finally, I could taste and smell and feel what I'd only glimpsed before: me, the band and the audience all vibrating on the same frequency, linking arms in free fall, time standing still somewhere high above the clouds. Genius that I was, alchemist, wizard, mad professor, I'd found the cure for gravity...
He writes well, with that magical combination of passion and intelligence. Having read the book several times, I sometimes get the impression that he's bordering on being anal-retentive or pretentious, but he manages to carry it off every time, because even when he's getting on his high horses about music, you sense that it's not just the ranting of some rock'n'roller who is using and abusing his position and his fame - all of it is stuff which has been carefully thought through. It is great to read such passionate, intelligent writing, even more so when the person in question happens to be an artist you admire.

I guess there are one or two secrets to writing things like this, things that people want to read. One of them is obviously a good grasp of the language and how it works and fits together, and how you can best use it to your advantage. I think this is partly a 'gift' and partly a result of a person's education. If you are taught to write properly and coherently when you are young, then it is so much easier to write this kind of thing. I was lucky enough not only to be a good learner at school, but also to have teachers who were concerned not only with what they taught, but also with how they taught it and how it was received. Expressing yourself in a coherent manner was always high on the agenda in all the places I've ever studied, and in fact, at college, how you expressed yourself was almost as important as what you said. I don't mean that you could write any old crap, but rather that people were willing to listen to what you had to say provided that you could justify your argument and argue it coherently.

I think that the other secret to great writing (and I'm talking more about non-fiction here, I guess) - above and beyond the intelligence and education which allow you to write technically very well - is to write about something you feel passionate about. There are people who are very passionate about any number of things, but who lack the 'tools' to communicate that passion, and somehow that passion gets lost in their expression of it. It's not a hard and fast rule - sometimes the person is able to get over the lack of tools and still communicate in an interesting way - but if you are lucky enough to find the winning combination of passion AND an ability to express oneself clearly and coherently, then it is always a pleasure to read. You don't even necessarily have to enjoy or be interested in the subject-matter, because the very style of expression can draw you in - the intelligence and insights become a pleasure in themselves, even if the subject is fishing for cod or baseball. I have read scientific books and non-fiction which communicated this passion with such intensity that I sometimes forgot that I didn't always understand what the author was saying, yet still emerged from my reading feeling that I'd read a great book.

I was lucky enough to receive the kind of education which allows me to express myself in an intelligent, thought-out way, so I have the 'tools' to do this. However, when I sit down and think about it, I feel that I only write 'well' (or talk 'well', for that matter - there is little difference between the two...) in certain circumstances and about certain things, and those things are ALWAYS things about which I feel passionately. Get me onto music, books or baseball and I can go on and on in an intelligent manner until the person with whom I am conversing is either bored to tears or asleep! I think these are the cases in which the subject-matter carries the whole thing - someone who feels passionately about something can make you interested in it even if this is not initially the case. However, get me onto sculpture or soccer (closely related to the other subjects) and it will be a whole different ballgame. The writing might be coherent, but the spark of passion will be missing. A good writing style can provide the launch-pad that a passion needs in order to be communicated, and vice-versa - passion can set a good writing style on fire...

Good writing is like great hi-fi equipment - the equipment should allow you not only to get to the heart of the music you love (which is 'easy', because music you love will sound great whether it' on a $10 radio or through a pair of $15,000 speakers, but also to discover things that you'd never previously listened to. The quality of the equipment and the sound coming from it should be able to take you on a journey you've never been on before.

And so it is with great writing. Someone who writes with great passion and intelligence should be able to interest you in the subject matter, whatever it is. For those of you reading this who are not baseball fans, I would like to hold Roger Angell up as an perfect example of how the writing itself can take you places you never expected to go. Here he is writing about the game-winning home run hit by Carlton Fisk in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series to keep the Red Sox in the Series. I've quoted this piece before, but I make no apologies for doing it again:
I suddenly remembered all my old absent and distant Sox-afflicted friends (and all the other Red Sox fans, all over New England), and I thought of them -- in Brookline, Mass., and Broolin, Maine; in Beverly Farms and Mashpee and Presque Isle and North Conway and Damriscotta; in Pomfret, Connecticut, and Pomfret, Vermont, in Waland and Providence and Revere and Nashua, and in both the Concords and all five Manchesters; and in Ramond, New Hampshire (where Carlton Fisk lives) and Bellows Falls, Vermont (where Carlton Fisk was born), and I saw all of them dancing and shouting and kissing and leaping about like the fans at Fenway -- jumping up and down in their bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms, and in bars and trailers, and even in some boats here and there, I supposed, and on the back-country roads (a lone driver getting the news over the radio and blowing his horn over and over, and finally pulling up and getting out and leaping up and down on the cold macadam, yelling into the night) and all of them, for once at least, utterly joyful and believing in that joy -- alight with it.
It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look -- I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring -- caring deeply and passionately, really caring -- which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naiveté -- the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball -- seems a small price to pay for such a gift.
Tonight is much the same - there will be no "haphazard flight of a distant ball", but I know in advance that I will be listening to something that is, as Joe Jackson himself says, "unbearably poignant." If "Home Town" is on the setlist, it is entirely conceivable that a tear will be shed:
We think we're pretty smart
Us city slickers get around
And when the going's rough
We kill the pain and relocate
We're never married
Never faithful not to any town
But we never leave the past behind
We just accumulate
So sometimes when the music stops
I seem to hear a distant sound
Of waves and seagulls
Football crowds and church bells
And I...

Wanna go back to my home town
Though I know it'll never be the same
Back to my home town
'Cause it's been so long
And I'm wondering if it's still there...