Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Cracked Mirrors, Part Two: The Minstrel’s Dilemma

Don van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart. (Photo: Andy Freeberg)

Part One of Cracked Mirrors was published on this site on October 27, 2021.

There should be a kind of periodic table for singer-songwriters, the way there is one for the elements and their interactive relationships. Maybe there is one, and we just haven’t noticed what it looks like. Does the table of their relative values and sonic weights as elements resemble the Grammy Awards? No, it couldn’t be, otherwise Don van Vliet would have won a Grammy years ago for his wonderful portrayal of Captain Beefheart before retiring to return to his first love of painting. If so, he would be Helium.
Would the periodic table of singer songwriters resemble Rolling Stone, Uncut or Mojo magazines? Maybe on occasion, but the actual table, though invisible, is more obvious than the relative interpretations of professional critics. And no, it couldn’t just only be the cash register, over which you and I have control as consumers, though it must be true that the best singer-songwriters simply have to connect with the largest number of people. It’s part of their pop magic in the first place, after all.
Perhaps history itself is the true location of the periodic table of elemental singer songwriters. And why not, since that at least places them in the same context and perspective of the great earlier exponents of other forms of music? Which leads us to the question, then: which singer songwriters will eventually be ranked, if only by sheer creative survival, at an equally valued and parallel position as those historically important examples of other musical greatness, the “classics”. For instance, which singer-songwriter would last as long, and serve as flexibly for successive generations, as Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Gershwin, Armstrong, Parker, Davis or Coltrane? The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who?
Let’s consider, for a moment, singer-songwriters as a community of strangers. A select group of strange sociopaths for whom one is company and two’s a crowd. But ironically, it is this same group of metaphysical malcontents who most perfectly and beautifully mirror our own human condition back to us. Cut off from the common clay by celebrity and just downright orneriness, they nonetheless are such superior empaths that, either alone or together, they read our minds. And their mirror sings them back to us. But I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s difficult to catch the image clearly when the mirror is always spinning around, say like Dylan’s does.
Once again, and still after all these years, Dylan is the titular mayor of the town in which all these other singer-songwriters are citizens. He didn’t take over the place. They elected him. He doesn’t even want to be Mayor. So he doesn’t see all the other singer-songwriters lined up behind him, as they really are lined up behind him, as if waiting for the bus to poetry heaven. He only sees the back of his own head in that special moving mirror, and he is no closer to his real face than the rest of us are, standing behind him in line.
He has no actual peers, if we define a peer as someone who has had a similarly seismic effect at revolutionizing their own musical tradition. To find such parallels we would have to place him in the context of Elvis Presley or The Beatles, if only because they alone loom as large. However, the parallels are perfectly clear if we look just a little further afield: Charlie Parker and Miles Davis in jazz; Charles Ives and Erik Satie in classical music; Robert Johnson in blues; James Joyce in literature; Pablo Picasso in painting; Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture. People after whom their field was no longer the same. 
Nonetheless, there are several musical artists, also singer-songwriters, whose images can be seen flickering in Dylan’s mirror. Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen certainly come to mind, though I’d say Young more fully inherited more of Dylan’s sorrowful substance, turning it inward, while Springsteen took more of the declarative style, turning it outward. Both certainly turned up the emotional volume on looking into the darkness and using the force of feeling as a weapon against the night.
Townes Van Zandt

But if it’s jumping into and out of the shadows of the most articulate songwriting available to the solitary poet who suffers the deep pangs of pathological empathy we’re talking about, and it is, then one has to look further to the fringes to find someone who has an equivalent emotive stature to Dylan. Dylan’s mirror reflects moral outrage at the state of reality and the difficulties of being both awake and in love at the same time. Out on the fringes you can hear the echo of what Dylan was doing, though, in the wistful and hugely sad music of the late Texas troubadour, Townes Van Zandt. There are reasons he’s not a household word. Firstly, he lived and saw with the same clarity but also buckled under the burden of his own obsessions and compulsions. Secondly, his music is so sad it can only be listened to in extremis, since it makes Leonard Cohen seem downright chipper by comparison, and mass audiences don’t rush out in search of his degree of existential angst, at least not on purpose, and especially not when it is so far outside the comfortable little genre called the blues.
People like the gifted Johnny Cash were out there too, on the same fringes but with considerably more listeners, and he too provided a road map leading back to redemption, just as Dylan does in every song. But it was a different redemption, called forth by resistance to a different damnation. In Dylan alone does a song howl out so powerfully into the face of the storm itself, into the heart of the wind with a cry that competes with that wind, and with words that can melt away any mask that he or we might try to wear for protection.
Look bravely into the dark side of the singer-songwriter’s crucial emotional isolation. The concept of different cultural tribes allows us to focus attention on songwriters whose styles and sensibilities are drastically different, but all of whom share a single thread creatively, and occasionally in the manner in which they deliver their insights. Some of these seminal figures, like Kurt Cobain and Nick Drake, died disastrously young due to drug and personality problems, while a scant few others managed not only to survive the same challenges but to go to become iconic figures of great influence for several generations of subsequent musician/performers. Keith Richards and Pete Townshend, David Bowie and Marianne Faithfull, are veritable dark monuments to transcendence of a sort. To paraphrase Groucho, they have a way with suffering and sorrow; it’s an expensive way, but it’s a way.
Nick Drake, ca 1972.
Why do some succumb to tragedy, while others turn it into a triumph of survival over the survivor? Some singer-songwriter mirrors are so cloudy we can barely see anything inside. Cloudy isn’t necessarily the same as dark, but the end effect on us is similar. Brian Wilson’s mirror reflects our longing for the pure state of being which we mistakenly think of as nostalgia for childhood, when it is actually nostalgia for a future we have lost – childhood’s end. There are many ways to break the blues, or try to do so. Some do it by singing the blues, like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers for instance, or his wayward kids, the early Fleetwood Mac. While others, like Wilson, try to happy themselves practically to death.
Other singer-songwriters, equally immersed in woe, tend to shift their attention towards a different response, one more capable of providing a much-needed defense: the sarcasm of sardonic humor, calculated to bring us face to face with the darkness at the same time as making us laugh at it outright. This second kind of blues-breaker comprises a group as varied as Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman and to some extent even Francis Vincent Zappa. They exhort us to laugh in the face of fate, but we discover only too quickly that it only hurts when we laugh. In response, they ask us to look into the ways that a smile can hide the horror.
Humor has always had a subtle but hidden role to play in popular music’s means of communicating important social issues. The best example of this historically is perhaps the peculiar synchronicity of performers such as Spike Jones and His City Slickers, and the rock satirist par excellence, Zappa. They both decided to utilize the funhouse mirror. And especially in the cases of Nilsson and Newman, the ability to provoke controversy and change through parody is a skillful and incisive weapon. In their case, they wield a sharp social scalpel in exactly the same manner as a great writer such as Jonathan Swift, and for exactly the same reasons. Because, as Charles Chaplin once sang, “Smile though your heart is breaking . . .”
Sometimes we get the blues so bad we have no recourse but to laughter, although it’s a low, dark laughter with a whisper of depression. Joni Mitchell has possibly the bluest mirror imaginable. While the style of music known officially as the blues, the kind Fleetwood Mac purveyed so brilliantly in their early British days, was merely a stylized version of the much more anarchic and chaotic emotional territory that both Mitchell and Faithfull explored each in their own uniquely feminine way. Unvarnished.
Taking a stand for feminist rock music and, often outperforming the guys, the so-called distaff side rose to ever greater prominence culturally and commercially over the years, and subsequent to the freewheeling 60’s it quickly became clear that woman have always played a major role in the recording industry but have been downplayed (pun intended) due to a basic male bias in our popular culture. That bias is amplified in the voices of great singer songwriters of the scale of Laura Nyro and its irony is crystallized in both her cult following and her lack of household-name status.
The deep roots of the feminine psyche in popular music, stemming from the earliest days of Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith, is hugely evident right up to the present day, in the voraciously talented but utterly self-destructive widow of Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love. At first glance, today it would appear that there are some youngish reflections in Mitchell’s blue mirror, and perhaps Sarah McLaughlin, Alanis Morissette, or Kate Bush might qualify for a glimpse down there, but decidedly not Norah Jones or her soft-centered stylistic tribe. Norah’s music often feels like a Caramilk chocolate bar, so cloying, sweet and sticky.
In general, it took as long a time for women to be recognized in the singer-songwriter field as it did any other highly protective enclave of patriarchal attitudes in our society to give up space and yield at least some of their monolithic power. Few things are more macho, after all, than rock music in the first place. The goddess mirror, naturally enough, disconcerted certain audience members more used to hearing the poetic pronouncement of real men who could weep and rage at the Fates, which were usually depicted as women. But the kind of women who would emerge in the 60’s were themselves the Lady-Killers: Yoko Ono and Patti Smith, to be followed through the decades by Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Carole King, Roberta Flack, Laura Nyro, Madonna, Sinéad O’Connor, and perhaps the most talented but understated one yet, P.J. Harvey.
Laura Nyro, ca 1970.
All of them were walking on thin ice, sliding on a skating rink owned by men, which made them still seem to be outsiders, no matter how successful they really ever became. An artist of the pop sophistication and cultural rank of David Bowie could never actually be mistaken for a real outsider, no matter how much he might parlay his alien sensibility and futuristic sex appeal into a cabaret act lasting forty years. But there are some for whom outsider status is more legitimate, the ones whose theme song could be a certain great Kinks song, “I’m Not Like Everybody Else!” These artists investigate the borderline where the unique becomes the curse.
Such talented tunesmiths have a rare but real following that amounts to a special cult status. Don Van Vliet, Van Dyke Parks, Bjork, and others, really are from somewhere else. Ray Davies’ gloriously sadistic song sums up his own passionate turmoil over being gay in a world of macho male rock stars, a predicament that placed him squarely within the same challenging matrix as many of the female stars being studied as well. Being considered on the fringe, or performing in a style which feels utterly foreign to the mainstream audience, can sometimes fog up the mirror. Both Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen are brilliant examples of using a dark and dingy mirror to great effect, using it so well, in fact, that we see right underneath there with them, beneath the emotionally disturbing grime.
One remedy for the sadness to which singer-songwriters are prone, of course, is provided by the pursuit of oblivion via the philosophy that life is a party, probably most perfectly personified successfully by The Rolling Stones. Several others also had recourse to the discovery that shutting down parts of the brain can relieve suffering, best staved off if we collectively writhe ecstatically in forgetfulness: the kind of songs delivered so well by Prince or Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison or Keith Moon, on a good day. After the party’s over and the hangover of meaning returns, we have a sudden urge for the therapeutic value of listening to songs by Steely Dan or the late, great Warren Zevon, artists who write their soothing guilt prescriptions seething with pure and undiluted sarcasm.
Naturally there is always the consolation of the lovers’ mirror, and indeed, many fresh love addicts convene there: James Taylor and Carly Simon, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Richard and Linda Thompson. The ultimate loveaddicts, of course, still reside there in history: John and Yoko, Paul and Linda, Michael Jackson and himself. Sometimes the bright lights can be blinding. The polarities and dualities inherent in the creative artist and audience relationship are varied and vulnerable, just as the singer-songwriters themselves usually are, and sometimes a songwriting partnership can be as intimate as a marriage. Sometimes a marriage can become the basis for and the entropy of a great songwriting team.
It would take a whole book, one I am actually planning to write soon, as a matter of fact, to explore the extent of existential acting-out in a polarized partnership such as that of the British folk-rockers Richard and Linda Thompson. They are among a select few other tag-teams from hell who go the full distance when inviting the audience into the psychopathology of their everyday life, and lives. They’re right up there with the most corrosive of creative amalgams, kind of a Brit counterpart to the battling west coast Buckingham-Nicks structural unit.
Their professional bye-bye as a team, Shoot Out the Lights (1982), is a shocking reversal of their initial outing together, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974), their post-Fairport Convention celebration of each other and the times. One wag described the swan-song album as songs that Richard had written to be performed by Linda after he had left her. Thus demonstrating that some of the deepest relationships are simply designed to implode, the Thompsons gave new meaning to the phrase finding your own voice. During a concert-hall tour of North America in 1982, Linda descended into the dark place, physically assaulted her husband on stage and then proceeded to lose her singing voice for about twenty years. He lost his mind to a radical Sufi communal group but then went on to make some the most beautiful but harrowing confessional music as a solo artist, very much like Joni Mitchell in many ways except way more depressing.
If Joni was an impressionist, then Thomson is a depressionist. Still, Mr. Thompson has produced mesmerizing folk music from hell, together and apart from Linda. In particular, Richard’s dark vision has a way of captivating our attention in a manner which makes him feel like a British version of Townes Van Zandt. Never has existential angst sounded so utterly beautiful. How is it possible for pain to be so nourishing? Thompson’s uniquely flavored songs delve into a dark place reserved for incompatible spirits trapped in a theatrical performance from which they cannot escape. His are among the loveliest and most haunting ballads ever to emerge from personal torment designed for public consumption. 
But it is more than gender polarity or genius duality at work in all these dynamic songwriters, whether composing alone or in tandem; it is almost a kind of unique personality paradigm at work in the unconscious of our culture. All these singer-songwriters are salesmen and salesladies for the unconscious, in fact. All these artists are exploring the potential for words and music as a transcendental force which can cure existential angst, at least temporarily. There is both a terrible sadness and a blissful glee in the art and craft of such explorers of the darkness as these.
Many are indeed depressive troubadours whose often triumphant but tragic lives were a veritable cautionary tale for any singer-songwriter willing or foolish enough to slip into the dizzying sanctuary of solipsism, one of the chief perils to which all poets, and in particular many singer-songwriters, are prone. In closing, here is a similar sentiment about the ancient craft, expressed even more succinctly by one of our finest poets of the darkness, Leonard Cohen: “I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get? / Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet / But I hear him coughing all night long /A hundred floors above me in the tower of song . . .”
Some despairing rock-poets, by plunging all the way to the bottom of their subjectivity, manage, remarkably, to serve as perfect emblems for the entire singer-songwriter phenomenon, both its pathology and its paradox. By dipping down so deep into the personal, they succeed in arriving at a universal message: an objective reality which all of us can share in, relate to, project upon, listen to, sing along with, and fall asleep to. In his remarkable study of creativity, The Duality of Vision, Walter Sorell drew our attention to the powerful dynamics at work between genius, versatility self-image, and the mystique of communication. Sorell was surprisingly stringent on the survivors and those who were lost in their wake: “All art is a rebellion against man’s limitations and a triumph of his greatness. Riches exist everywhere for the strong, temptations for the weak. Only the would-be artist can suffer under the burden of an abundance of talent.”
By that demanding yardstick, John Lennon would have to be considered almost a failure, while Bob Dylan would be once more heralded as the true Olympian he suddenly appears to be. For Lennon buckled under the weight of his own achievement in creating the most revolutionary group in pop music history, while Dylan somehow got his sixty-first wind, soldiered on, and delivered himself of a magisterial lifelong body of classic work. Luckily, I’m not a psychologist, only a music lover like all the rest of you, and my interest is mostly in marveling at the magnificent works of art, these scintillating songs, produced from the depths of frequent misery and isolation, yet sounding to us, against all reason, as though they were written for us.
We’ve all felt them for ourselves, these feelings in the best of the best songs, in our own secret heart, but these particular singer-songwriters spoke them aloud for the world to hear. Sounds to me like one of the most incisive and unintentionally perfect summaries of Dylan’s harrowing “It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” that I’ve ever heard. And at this point, after engaging in so much reverie about singer-songwriters, while also denying that I was ever psychoanalyzing them, I’m more than pleased to let a specialist such as Sorrel make the following psychic observation: “Trying to deduce the reality of the man from the artist’s work leads to disappointments because the creative genius often hides in the habit of a man unconsciously denying its shape.” 
Here Sorell’s insights seem unnervingly sufficient to the task of explaining the mystery of the permanently-melting masks of his creator, Robert Zimmerman, and of the permanence of his performer, the Dylan character. So we end where we began, with Bob Dylan, the one who is our own contemporary version of the illustrious Francois Villon, except that Dylan eludes the gallows, although he did painfully discover the fact that celebrity is a mask which eats into the face.
The Mayor of the city of songs, 1965. (Photo: Hal Leonard)
We must further ask ourselves what messages we really want delivered by these exemplars of empathy, the great singer songwriters, whose golden age, from 1962-1982 was a grand spectacle to behold indeed. And to behear. We need to ask ourselves what our personal relationships with the messages in these powerful songs really means. Strangely enough though, and as usual, Dylan suddenly wrote a song to tell us the answer already, before we actually knew what we wanted to ask, and it’s the strange and exotic tune we are listening to right now. The song is called “The Wicked Messenger”, it’s from one of his masterpiece albums, John Wesley Harding, in 1968.
The lyrics are, as always with Dylan, blunt but right on target, and maybe they could be addressed to all the cracked mirrors, those who bring us messages we often find difficult to hear:
There was a wicked messenger
From Eli he did come,
With a mind that multiplied
The smallest matter.
When questioned who had sent for him,
He answered with his thumb,
For his tongue it could not speak,
But only flatter!
He stayed behind the assembly hall,
It was there he made his bed,
Oftentimes he could be seen returning.
Until one day he just appeared
With a note in his hand which read,
"The soles of my feet, I swear they're burning!
Oh, the leaves began to fallin'
And the seas began to part!"
And the people that confronted him were many...
And he was told but these few words,
Which opened up his heart:
If you can't bring good news, then don't bring any!
s 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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