Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Cracked Mirrors, Part One: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Singer-Songwriter

Brian Wilson in action, 1966.

“The men and women who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror.” Marcel Proust

The inimitable Elvis Costello once remarked, with his typical sarcastic bravado, that writing about music was like dancing about architecture. Now, far be it from me to contradict one of our greatest singer-songwriters, as well as one so prominently featured as a prominent Island in my own musical criticism over the years. However, some exception must be taken to the talented Mr. Costello’s observation. First of all, let’s readily admit that he is utterly correct, in so far as music, and especially the songs that it conveys to us, are both best appreciated in the temporal immediacy of the listening experience itself. But reflecting on their origins, their blueprint, so to speak, can often clarify how such songs so powerfully occupy the landscape of both our overall culture and our own personal lives. 

So therefore we must at least attempt to imagine the genealogy of these sounds and visions, and their obscure legacy in our shared lives as music lovers. True, writing about music just might be like dancing about architecture, but it is also equally true that some architecture deserves to be danced to, like Costello’s own quirky songs, for instance. Or perhaps “twitched to” might be more accurate in his unique case. Especially when it seems so crystal clear that each song is also a kind of building, a building perceived to contain the message of the song itself, designed and constructed by the writer and delivered in his or her own distinctive voice. Costello’s songs are little houses of breath that take our breath away.

They are songs which, as a friend of mine recently put it, you can live inside of for a while. But how and why do they seem to speak on our behalf, these talented but often tormented tellers of tall tales? By telling us how they feel they also somehow manage to tell us how we feel. We still need an adequate analysis, certainly more that that provided by Otto Rank, of what makes the most creative individuals in this field also the most personally vulnerable and often emotionally wounded, with evidence culled from their own art form: the songs. The talent and pathology of the singer-songwriter is manifested in the songs they write, through their relationships with their partners—whether creative or personal—and through their roles in the larger theatre of our popular culture. They somehow serve as our cracked mirrors.

Of course, poems and stories, especially when sung aloud, were the first means of transmitting the magical contents of many diverse cultures, and never more so than in the ancient traditions of pre-literate societies. Poems and stories are the telegrams one time in history sends to another one. Personally delivered. The process still works the same way, though the tools of transmission have obviously changed. The surviving poems and songs from the ancient eras, such as the Indian Vedas (c.a. 2500 B.C.), Sumerian tales of Gilgamesh (c.a. 3000 B.C), or the Greek tales of the Odyssey and Iliad (c.a. 700 B.C.) are the earliest form of recorded cultural information that chronicles the lives and beliefs of peoples long gone. Poetic songs thus contain the DNA of a culture and its mythical foundations, whether pre-historic, ancient or modern. Indeed, some rare songs even seem to predict the future.

In pre-literate societies, the epic poem was a means of sending perceived vital data into the future. In literate societies, the lyric poem, with its shorter and more personal content, eventually became the primary means of interpreting that history and recasting it in subjective and emotional terms than resonated with the readers’ own lives. In the 20th century, the rise of the singer-songwriter tradition led to a creative mutation fueled by the combination of social wealth, entertainment, electronic media and loud recording devices designed to convey those personal messages to mass audiences across the globe immediately. 

Joni Mitchell, 1968. (Photo: Joel Bernstein)

Lady Gaga.

The motley crew of spiritual savants I’m designating as cracked mirrors are the inheritors of a distant tradition which first allowed them a format for their musings but then each genius alone was the motor which changed that tradition so dramatically that we have to remind ourselves that they are indeed in the historic company of bards such as Homer and countless others who performed a similar role for their own ancient societies. Back then, Homer was even a kind of primitive radio/television set which his society tuned into in order to learn about their own roots and possible future destinies. Today? Who knows, perhaps it’s even Joni Mitchell or Lady Gaga. Such gifted storytellers who sing their tales are doing the same service for our contemporary, and global societies: they are the flickering mirrors into which we gaze to see ourselves captured, contained and re-configured.   

Indeed, most of the writers and performers I tend to examine set out to do the same thing, with varying degrees of success. But one thing they all share: by expressing how they feel, they actually reveal how we feel, or how we might feel, if we could manage to cope with the current. Whatever the different styles and sensibilities of the artists being profiled, they all share one element in common: that of using emotionally raw content and personal vulnerability as a vehicle for their art forms. They each communicate for us by communicating to us, while we often communicate through them, usually to the friends with whom we share the music.

How is it that when we look into the cracked mirrors that these gifted contemporary singer songwriters hold up for us we see not only ourselves, but everyone else, especially the artists themselves, depicted with the most extreme emotive intensity and yet also in the most accurate and unforgiving manner? All of the key subjects in this Earwitness exploration are extremely well-known popular music celebrities, among them Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Elton John, John Lennon. All of them, despite their obvious stylistic differences, have something in common which links rather than separates them. These links also form the chain which ties so many remarkably gifted but often troubled troubadours to all of our own collective cultural lives.

I hope to briefly explore here the intricate nature of isolation and self-absorption at the heart the singer-songwriter’s creative work, what I’ve called the loneliness of the long-distance singer-songwriter (with due credit to the novelist Alan Sillitoe and his spine-tingling short story). Singer-songwriters’ own ruminations about their obscure craft also have a magical way of encapsulating all our own sentiments and feelings. Yet all the singer-songwriters in this grouping sing in an exotic and rather raw vocal style—which one would not traditionally call reassuring or pretty—and still their profoundly unique voices appear to be the only ones capable of conveying their correspondingly unique messages to us. Indeed, some of them, such as Dylan or Waits, are downright bruised and dented voices. All the better.

Bob Dylan (left); Tom Wait, 1974 (right, Wikicommons)

One of the key elements being explored here is the fact that singer-songwriters often suffer from a deep sense of loneliness, associated with being the ‘only one’ who can adequately sing and perform what they themselves composed. The ironic danger being unearthed is basically that of each performer’s inclination to sink solely into self-absorption, even solipsism, expressing only what matters to them, while at the same time, and strangely enough, managing to speak for all of us in a way that connects with what we all feel. Emotional wavelengths are thus seemingly superimposed through certain pop songs.

We all seem to use many gifted songwriters, depending on our own tastes and preferences, as surrogates through which we can travel to the edge without endangering ourselves personally. But in order to speak to us of our own deepest emotions, paradoxically they must perforce make records and sell them. That is often, for them, the downside of their craft. For some singer-songwriters, that is easier said than done. Dylan once even compared making records to working in a coal mine, and at first one thinks it was just a classic dour Dylan commentary on the condition his condition was in. As usual with Dylan, though, it is so much more than that.

The coal mine metaphor is more far reaching than it first appears to be, leading us to an image that can capture and contain some of the magic of these many talented tunesmiths. Basically, they all work inside the coal mines of their own personalities and identities, real or imagined, into which they must first descend to scrape away at the dim walls of their own emotional mineshafts. They all must lower themselves into the same coal mine of their own emotional history in order to chisel off portions of the damp cave itself for us to savor.   

Sometimes, though, their mineshaft caves in, as in the cases of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, John Lennon of The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones, Syd Barrett, Skip James, Jim Morrison or, in slow motion, Pete Townshend. Only the very fortunate can crawl back up through the dark dust out into the daylight again.

John Lennon (left); Syd Barrett (right)

Luckily for us, especially for me, in order to appreciate the cracked-mirror craft of the singer-songwriters, it isn’t necessary to climb down there and watch them at work in the damp darkness. After all, it’s hard enough to descend into our own shafts and wells. It is more than sufficient to spread out the diamonds on a lovely piece of black velvet cloth and gaze at them. Our way of doing this is to fully listen to their lyrics, with full attention and vulnerability, to what their songs are telling us. Then perhaps we can speculate about what life down in the shaft must be like, and only then can we really appreciate just what it is they do for and to us, up here, in our comfortable living rooms.

However, as a critic of popular culture, one does develop a certain psychological proficiency in identifying overarching traits, and that is the map we can use to explore these songwriters’ personal territories. A brief note then on the structure of the exploration I’m collectively calling Earwitness. Some are denoted as Islands, others as Continents, with everyone else being part of a stylistic Constellation. Hence Dylan, the ultimate solo artist, and Brian Wilson, the genius of The Beach Boys, are both islands, as are David Bowie, Tom Waits or Elvis Costello. Their character is their content. Ditto for Joni Mitchell, Amy Winehouse and Marianne Faithfull, artists whose personalities inform their content to such a degree that they are the message-bearers, no matter who might be playing with and for them.    

Likewise the notion of continents, where we have clusters of pairs and couples who traditionally write together, and can barely sustain themselves creatively when apart. Among these, Lennon and McCartney are undoubtedly the supreme masters of a unique kind of modern rhapsody, artists whose brilliance cannot even be approximated by others on their own. To be a continent in this regard is to have formed a structural unit with a creative partner which is so strong that each half is impossible to consider without the other.

So Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, are among this uniquely harrowing domain. According to Vera John-Steiner, in her book Creative Collaboration published by Oxford University Press, all of us have been held in the thrall of an illusory cultural assumption:

Rodin’s famous sculpture, ‘The Thinker’, dominates our collective imagination as the purest representation of human inquiry: the lone, stoic thinker. Yet while the western belief in individualism romanticizes this perception of the solitary creative process, the reality is that artistic forms usually emerge from the joint thinking, passionate conversations, emotional connections and shared struggles common in all meaningful relationships. Many of these collaborators complemented each other in major ways, meshing different backgrounds and forms into fresh styles of thinking, while others completely transformed their respective fields.

And surprisingly to most people, perhaps, many of these creative teams simply loathed working together.

The Glimmer Twins in their prime.

If anything, we want to unearth the psychological or even spiritual template that sheds light on creative combat. It is a not a historical but rather a human phenomenon we need to explore: pairs of creative partners for whom relating to the other is like relating to another distinct part of themselves, even though such personal interactions are often as painful and claustrophobic as they are productive and enriching. There’s more to synchronicity than meets the eye, even when blockbuster success results from their tortured alchemy. Bands like Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, The Who, survivors all, seem to realize implicitly that the brand identity they worked so hard and long to create jointly often prevents them from ever having a private identity separate from or independent of their corporate entities. Or, painfully enough, from the partner they desperately need in order to make their work work.     

And how do they just keep on keeping on? Two things: allegiance and obedience to their successful brand and the simple fact that nobody does it better. I took a look at the list of creative collaborators toiling in a gifted but troubled partnership and suddenly noticed that of all these tormented but successful teams, a few of whom still succeed in staying together even today, are the ones who have known each other the longest, some of them literally since their beginnings. Simon and Garfunkel, though their troubled waters flooded ages ago, first met when they were 11; Pete Townsend and Roger Daltry met when they were 14; Mick Jagger and Keith Richards met when they were 7; Frank Zappa and Don Van Vliet met when they were 15; Lennon and McCartney met when they were 15; Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks met when they were 18; Brian Wilson and his Beach Boy family met when they were born.

This entire creative and chaotic crew first formed their initial bonds together while they were still practically children, before they had fully formed their own characters and identities, and were in alliance together against a confining adult society. The factors that make a great singer-songwriter team are exactly the same as those that make a great solo artist: intuitive insight, inspired innovation and incandescent interpretation. And since we live in a future partially visualized and personified by the work of these many gifted but troubled teams of singer-songwriters, in a curious sense all of us became their collaborators too. We collaborate with them by deciding who becomes enshrined in history and exactly what it is for which they will be remembered. After all, our collective memory is a museum of their dreams.           

As Peter Saint-André put it very well:

The tradition of song that developed in Romantic times, exemplified in works by composers such as Schumann, Schubert and Wolff, is different from that of the troubadours in many respects. Most importantly, these song composers were not poet-musicians, since they set to music the words of other writers. The same can be said of the most popular American songwriters of the first half of the twentieth century, who tended to work in teams. It is not until later in the twentieth century that we see again the resurgence of the poet-musician in the form of folk-pop writers in America and Britain starting in the early 1960’s and continuing today.

The fountainhead of this genre is Bob Dylan, whose recording The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan paved the way for all who followed. Throughout the 1960’s, Dylan competed creatively with the individual songwriters in The Beatles, who raised the status of modern popular music from tunes for dancing to songs for listening. While Dylan and The Beatles concentrated mainly on the ancient lyric topics of love and politics, together they defined the genre and the almost messianic role of the modern singer-songwriter.

It is precisely that messianic role which most interests us here. Though that role changes somewhat over time, its essential core nature, that of “I have a secret to tell you . . .,” remains unaltered over ageless epochs and still requires the song form to most effectively deliver the message.

The song remains king. So much so that songs can be mined and cultivated to reveal the true face of any era, or the real spirit of any given zeitgeist. Gerald Marzorati has even mused that songs might be able to unearth what the French call the mentalité of an age: a given society’s prevailing worldview and sensibility, as well as many of its interior thoughts and feelings. As he expressed it in his review of Nick Horsby’s Songbook, “A hundred, two hundred years from now, a historian of our mentalité might well want to investigate the role played by recordings of popular music. How did those four minute songs, listened to while driving or walking, at gatherings, or in the privacy of a bedroom, heard over and over again and then abandoned, bind people together culturally, and how did they resound in the deepest reaches of the self?” In the end, our culture is merely a mirror of ourselves.

Whoever you may choose as your own preferred cracked mirrors will be equally valid, since they do for you what all our mirrors do for all of us: articulate feelings we need to have expressed on our behalf. Remember, it is a totally different intersection point for each listener and each performer, therefore one might also produce a completely different selection of mirrors, for instance, one that included many of the worthwhile performers it was necessary for me to exclude here. Imagine these songs as a kind of personal jukebox.

Visualize a soundtrack, then, perhaps consider it, in the words of Joni Mitchell, as the star-maker machinery behind the popular song, and in the case of this particular sequence of songs and artists, our theme appears to be that of seeking some sort of vague security or solid ground in a constantly shifting and changing world, a world of love and loss, exile and return.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin, one of the ultimate hit-making machines.

Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately,” for instance, in which the author offers a strange variety of sanctuary:

When your mother sends back all your invitations
And your father to your sister he explains
That you’re tired of yourself and all of your creations
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?

Now naturally a world-weary person is also going to be the ideal listener for Dylan’s unique brand of redemption. Furthermore, the ultimate offer of sacrifice is then proposed: “When you want somebody that you don’t have to speak to / Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?”

That same exhausted soul is being lamented, or eulogized, in Brian Wilson’s song “Surf’s Up", composed with Van Dyke Parks, in which the Beach Boy who was swallowed up by the ocean inside of him uncannily crooned: “While at port, adieu or die / A choke of grief, hard hardened I / Beyond belief, a broken man, too tough to cry . . . “ Joni Mitchell addresses the same hapless pilgrim in “Little Green”: “Just a little green / Like the colour when the spring is born . . . / Like the nights when the northern lights perform / There’ll be icicles and birthday clothes, and sometimes there’ll be sorrow . . . ”

In the next song on the playlist, David Bowie admonishes the pilgrim to prepare for permanent dislocation in “Changes”:

I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream of warm impermanence
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their world
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through . . .

The distaff side then asserts itself again, when Marianne Faithfull’s dulcet tones drone, in broken English, of course:

Could have come through anytime
Cold lonely puritan, what are you fighting for?
It’s not my security. It’s not my reality.
What are you fighting for? What are you fighting for?

The answer to the questions, What is one is fighting for? and For whom one fights? is dangled precariously in Tom Waits’ hysterical hymn, “Way Down In the Hole”:

When you walk through the garden, you gotta watch your back
Well, I beg your pardon, walk the straight and narrow path . . .
We’ll all be safe from Satan, when the thunder rolls
Just gotta help me keep the devil way down in the hole . . .

Down there, in the hole wherever everything scary is stored like a warehouse, Elvis Costello admits, They think that I’ve got no respect. / But everything means less than zero . . . / She says, let’s talk about the future / Now we’ve put the past away . . .

And wondering about the future of the same weary pilgrim is exactly what Elton John does so well for a living:

Where to now, St. Peter
If it’s true I’m in your hands
I may not be a Christian
But I’ve done all one man can
I understand I’m on the road
Where all that was is gone
So where to now, St Peter
Show me which road I’m on, which road I’m on . . .

And so on. All cracked mirrors ask questions more beautiful than the answers.

Like many other listeners who were deeply affected by their messages, I have used these songs to both help understand myself and to clarify the shared confusions of mid-20th-century life. It is also equally true that we used them together, to understand, in a more abstract and neutral way, the times in which we all lived. It is therefore perfectly acceptable that this particular line-up of long-distance singer-songwriters has been curated, in a manner of speaking, in order to create a coherent building for some of our most cherished memories and emotions to live inside of, if only for the brief and tenuous duration of a single song.

Here, then, is the architecture we want to dance to.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020. His latest work in progress is a new book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, due out in early 2022.


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