Modern noir, settling Bruce Springsteen's hash, and the truth about rock and roll: A discussion
Jay Stringer: “I listened to one of my favorite songwriters singing one of his most famous songs last night. And it's a tale of getting someone pregnant, getting married at 19, and that was `all she wrote.' [Ed. note: Bruce Springsteen, "The River."] And ... it just speaks to me of someone who hasn't lived that life, singing without the empathy to really understand it.
“Now, that songwriter gets it right more than he gets it wrong, and there are many other songs — particularly on the albums that followed — where he finds the empathy to deliver it.
“We either make out that it's some soul-crushing grind, that saps people’s dreams and robs them of dignity, or we mythologize it, patronize it into some noble existence full of daily wonder, where every character from that background speaks like Morgan Fucking Freeman with pearls of wisdom, and they're all just happy to be alive, thank you Guv'nor.
“We can't seem to just let it be what it is. A life. A story. A real person. … And truth can be damned entertaining. Because life ain’t one thing or the other; it's not heroic or tragic. Because on the tragic end, we have a lot of modern noir that pisses me off, because it's become a race to the bottom of misery. And that's not honest either. But it's about empathy. Not talking down or up.”
|Johnny Shaw, Jay Stringer, Eryk Pruitt at|
Bouchercon 2015, Raleigh, N.C. (Photo
by your humble blogkeeper)
“A similar thought has crossed my mind, with the addition that a lot of modern noir and rural noir and noir with working-class characters also seems to be about how many 'fucks' one can get on the page.
“And then there are Johnny Shaw, Eryk Pruitt, Benjamin Whitmer.”
Jay: “Agreed, Peter. Those guys 'get' it. Life is all of the things. Funny, tragic, heroic, dull, epic, short, pointless, daft, numinous. It's got more that one shade.”
Peter: “Pruitt is the one of those guys I have read most recently, and one thing I noticed in his stuff is that if a character is a dumb fuck, Pruitt will show that the character is a dumb fuck. No bogus nobility here.
“As for `The River,' the `wedding coat’ line always bothered me. I think Springsteen used `coat’ because he couldn't think of anything else that rhymed with 'wrote.' Great songwriters manage to distort the rhythms of normal speech to fit music while creating the illusion that they're writing real speech. In the U.S., no one ever did that better than Johnny Mercer.
“I think Springsteen is pretty damned good as a performer and overrated as a songwriter. The man will have to answer in the next world for `Go-Kart Mozart was checking out the weather chart,’ after all. The songs of his that get cited as great noir songs or heartfelt working-class laments always strike me as a little off. `Wedding coat,’ for example, and what is the reason for the jazz arrangement and Richard Davis' bass on `Meeting Across the River’? What do they add to the song? What do they have to do with the song?
“I flatter myself with the thought that I'm a good test for whether noir with poor or rural or working-class characters works because I have never been any of those things. So if it works for me, it can't work just because it's authentic or some crap like that. It has to be not authentic, but convincing.”
Jay: “I'm growing to think narrative songs can be a trap, too. Not that they can't work, because so many of them do, but I think they're very easy to get wrong. Sometimes songwriters are trying too hard to write prose, and losing sight of what works about a song. And I think the song `The River' shows that. He's a young guy stretching very hard to find a new voice, but the work is showing. I can do things with a book that a songwriter can't do in a song. But a songwriter can do things with a song that I can't do with a book. And I think we should both lean into that. Bruce tells a story in `Racing in the Street,' for example, that's purer than a book, and plays to its strengths as a song. But when he wrote `The River' I think he lost sight of that.
“Funny you mentioned his story songs just as I was essaying about them.”
Peter: “It's hard to avoid that subject when discussing Springsteen. Those long (and I mean long) monologues before songs, complete with rising musical backgrounds of their own and delivered in a suitably throaty voice are pretty good, but make no mistake: They are showmanship, pure and simple. Nothing wrong with that, but rock and roll and the people who write about it take themselves awfully seriously. Not everything has to be a primeval evocation of an earlier America or crap like that. Sometimes a musician can just be a good showman. But God forbid anyone should write that about Springsteen. Calling him an entertainer rather than a poet or a troubadour would be so irreverent.”
Jay: “I think that's why as much as Springsteen has been one of my favorites for a long time, Paul Westerberg has always been my guy. He writes songs. He goofs off. He plays guitar and sings. He's not TELLING us that he's telling stories, he's just making us feel. And his songs find emotional truths and are relatable, but he's playing to his strengths in simply wanting to write and play songs. I'm a big believer in finding out what it is your chosen art form can do better than any others, and going for that. I like comics that do things only comics can do. Songs that are the best at being songs. Films, etc. ... If and when a songwriter wants to tell me what they're singing about, that's fine. It's their choice of course, but it adds a bit of glass between my heart and their words. Don't tell me, show me. And the BEST artists, I think, are the ones who get on with it, and don't need to tell you they're artists.”
Peter: "He's not TELLING us that he's telling stories ..."
“That gets right to the point, I think. From the mid-1960s on, rock and roll thought it had grown up, but it was really like a 17-year-old trying too hard to show it was a grown-up and not always bringing it off.”
|That was all he wrote.|
Peter: “I remember reading a third-hand account that Springsteen would spray his face with something to create the illusion that he was sweating on stage. Nothing wrong with that if one is a hard-working entertainer, but definitely behavior unbecoming a troubadour. ... I also read, maybe in the same place, that David Bowie admitted that he never had as much sex as he liked people to think he had. One has long known, of course, that the Rolling Stones were a bunch of art school and LSE boys … Rock and roll needs someone to cast an eye on it like the one James Ellroy cast on Hollywood.
“I have a bit of sympathy with the uncomfortable English vocabulary for comics. `Graphic novel' is pretentious and arriviste, and it smacks of insecurity. But `comics' is an odd term, too, because there's nothing comical about many of the best of them. Our language has no accurate, comprehensive term like the French bandes dessinées.”
Billy Samson: "From a lurker's point of view that was an excellent conversation, well done you two! The Springsteen spray-on sweat thing was new to me, but reminded me of the old story of bottom-drawer goths Fields Of The Nephilim losing all credibility with ANY audience early in their career after a bag of Homepride flour (complete with the wee bowler hatted fella cheerily waving) was spotted behind them in a Melody Maker photo, thus revealing exactly how they obtained their deathly stage pallor.
“Obviously Bruce had more critical capital in the bank before that, so wasn't a problem. But everything in art is a pose (of sorts) to gain our trust by its very nature, and balances empathy disguised as sympathy for the artist with actual empathy (for the target audience and others). What I find interesting is how our codes for deciphering and interpreting all this have changed in recent years.”
Jay: “One of the reasons my love for [Tom] Waits grows, I think, is that the selling of the myth, the selling of the pose, is such a part of his art. He's practically winking at us the whole time. To the point that, actually, we don't even question the authenticity. And part of that is because he's a brilliant writer, but also I think because of the way he's made an act out of the act."
Billy Samson: “I find a lot of older people I know, punk-era types who grew up in way more socially aware times, take Waits completely at face value. The notion of him being more Bowie than Leadbelly is dismissed. (The notion of Leadbelly himself actually always being a bit Bowie is another step again.)"
John McFetridge: “I have to admit I don't read much noir anymore. I find I'm rarely in the mood to read about losers or about people getting screwed. I sometimes think we missed a big change in the world (in North America, anyway), and the literature got disconnected. “I've been reading a lot of what you might call '50s suburban lit lately, Philip Roth and John Cheever and Saul Bellow, the kind of stuff I had no time for in my twenties. I see now they were fully engaged in their times. Sam Wiebe brought up Norman Mailer the other day, and he's another I didn't get till I got old enough. I'm looking for that in noir, but what I see mostly is what you said about Tom Waits, a lot of winking. Not because the writers or singers aren't `genuinely working class,' but because the characters often seem to be stuck in another era when people dropped out of high school and still had expectations of normal life.
“Let me put it this way: I remember in history class being told about a shift in European culture (we were talking specifically about France) away from hunting and to fenced-in animals, husbandry, I guess. It meant there was a shift in who were the cool kids, so to speak. Being a great hunter didn't matter so much anymore but being witty in the salon started to be (or being philosophical, I guess).
“So, I guess I find a lot of noir has missed the 'revenge of the nerds' stage that we've been going through the last forty years.
“And we're in a place — shit we've already discussed this a bunch of times — where entertainment has been separated out from having to be about anything. Something can just be `dumb fun' now, whereas entertainment used to be about things. But we're generations down the line into the misdirect. If our entertainment is no longer talking about who we are, then we forget who we are.
“I agree with you about finding the balance. Absolutely. To quote Ray Banks, "the most lasting argument is made in subtext." I think he said that, anyway. If he didn't, he should have. In fact, let's just say I said it, right there. Trouble is, I think we're in a phase increasingly where the balance has been tipped all the one way, and we're encouraged more and more to go to that, but the ideal is to do both.”
© Peter Rozovsky 2015