Friday, January 08, 2016

Modern noir, settling Bruce Springsteen's hash, and the truth about rock and roll: A discussion

Jay Stringer, Glasgow-based crime writer and rumored consumer and provider of drinks at Bouchercon, put up a post on Facebook this week about depictions of working-class life in fiction and the media, and the discussion grew from there. Here's part of what ensued:
                    ==========

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)
Peter Rozovsky: "...a lot of modern noir...pisses me off, because it's become a race to the bottom of misery."

“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.
Jay: “Your `poet or troubadour' line also touches on what annoys me about the cult of Bill Hicks. Which isn't a knock on Hicks himself. Stand up was my first love, but I get SICK of people who want to say `Hicks wasn't just a comedian, he was a POET.’ No. He was a comedian. He was one of the best there is/was at that particular art form; don't cheapen it by saying it's something else. Bruce is one of the best showmen in rock, as you say, so why can't people let him be that, and then talk about how being that also allows him to have things to say about life? Why does Watchmen need to be a `graphic novel' and not just the very best of COMICS?"

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.

Jay Stringer: “I guess for me, and this brings it right back, is that I feel a lot of modern noir is in the same place as the song I started off by taking at a pop at, except darker. And none of it feels real. We've taken `write what you know,’ and, rather than fix it to `know what you write,’ we've turned it into `pretend to write what you pretend to know. The whole thing in `The River' about the 19-year-old who gets married. Well, my first marriage was 23 (I think) ... I know lots of people who did what the song is singing about, and none of them have ended up being the guy in the song. For one thing, most marriages I've ever known start off in the right place. Not all of those people are happy, but they're not some walking working-class dead. And it's just that total lack of anything real that's bugging me. It can be done in an entertaining way, it can be funny, or dark, or hopefully a mixed bag of emotion, but make it feel REAL.

“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

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25 Comments:

Blogger Monson said...

I really like this because it says a lot of things about Springsteen and show business that I'd been kind of thinking of lately but unable to quite articulate -- the dumbest consumers of art I think are the ones that don't realize that a performer's shtick of appearing 'authentic' is a freaking shtick in order to make money in show business -- and I really hate this because once again someone talks about contemporary US noir writers without mentioning me.

January 08, 2016  
Blogger Monson said...

And another thing! This really bugs me as a 59-year-old working person with grown kids: what is this thing people have with getting married and working and having a family like it's some long torturous prison? Or, a 'surrender' or some kind of betrayal of one's 'true self' or whatever? No., working, living, raising a family is a perfectly wonderful way to live, jeez. and, within that kind of living one can have great times, they can learn about themselves and the world, they can get involved in all kinds of stuff that is awesome, they just have to be open and have some imagination. (so I think I'm agreeing with you two)

January 08, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mike, note Jay's comments that "ife ain’t one thing or the other; it's not heroic or tragic" and that entertainment can be worth taking seriously without its creators having to be taken as troubadours or spokesmen for a generation of stuff like that.

I've questioned the cult of authenticity ever since I read a review that praised David Mamet for capturing the authentic speech of Great Lakes boatmen.

How did the reviewer know how Great Lakes boatmen speak?

January 08, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think your second comment agrees with Jay's comment about the view of marriage expressed in "The River."

January 08, 2016  
Blogger Monson said...

Yeah, I was definitely trying to be agreeable and feared by sounded passionate I might've sounded argumentative. Oh, and no human sounds or talks in real life they way Mamet's character's talk in his movies and play though I really like most of his movies and plays

January 08, 2016  
Blogger Monson said...

So that is me agreeing about Mamet

January 08, 2016  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

That's a good point, Peter. Certainly the reviewer thought Mamet captured the voice but really was just having preconceived notions iconfirmed.

And that's a problem with authenticity as a goal - it's almost universally praised when it supports existing beliefs - which is kind of the opposite of what literature and art are all about, isn't it?

I think voice is really important in a story but not as important as the story.

January 08, 2016  
Blogger Monson said...

I always remember this story: not sure which blues guy it was, Lightning Hopkins, I think, in his normal life rode around in a Caddy with Mohair upholstery and wore loud clothes but in the mid-60s during the big folk revival when all the black bluesmen where being worshiped he'd show up for lucrative concerts and festival appearances in his Caddy, but parked it in back and change into farm-hand looking clothes and put his electric guitar in the trunk and pull out an old acoustic for his performances

January 08, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mike: You're right. There is nothing on Earth like the way the characters speak in The Spanish Prisoner and House of Games.

I saw Lightning Hopkins play at the old Rising Sun club in Montreal. I don't remember what he wore or what he played. But I like the idea of his dressing down for a folkie audience that craved authenticity.

January 08, 2016  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Peter, I've probably mentioned this book a few times, but I think it's really good:

http://www.amazon.com/Faking-It-Quest-Authenticity-Popular/dp/0393060780

January 08, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Certainly the reviewer thought Mamet captured the voice but really was just having preconceived notions confirmed.

And that's a problem with authenticity as a goal - it's almost universally praised when it supports existing beliefs - which is kind of the opposite of what literature and art are all about, isn't it?

I think voice is really important in a story but not as important as the story.


John: Yes, story has taken a distinct back seat to tone in American hard-boiled crime writing since the 1940s, hasn’t it? I’ll have to think about story in my crime reading.

I wrote somewhere that tone, which may be another word for voice, was especially important for me in reading rural noir or noir with poor or working class characters because I have little or no way judge what’s authentic and what isn’t I put aside one contemporary book recently that I had liked until a lapse in tone that may have bothered no one but me. I don’t remember what the book was, but the lapse was something like “the fact that,” which broke the illusion the story had created and plunged me back into the dreary world of indifferent English.

January 08, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I don't remember if you had mentioned the book before, but I like the looks of it.

I'm reminded of a comment I once read that the Carter Family, thought of as players of pure, authentic roots music, were really more like pop musicians who made use of all the advanced recording technology available to them.

I wonder when authenticity became a salable commodity in pop music and other popular art forms. It would be easy to make lazy connections to postwar alienation. But then, isn't everything due to postwar alienation?

January 08, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John: This conversation reminds me of our visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at Bouchercon in 2012: http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2012/10/bouchercon-day-1-rock-and-roll-is-here.html

January 08, 2016  
Blogger Monson said...

Carter Family: makes me think of country music. You know, middle-aged country fans are disgusted with the popular country music right now, they call it 'bro country' and other things. I think this is kind of an authenticity thing too. We (i'm one of them basically) grew up with certain ideas about country music and how country music stars were supposed to LOOK, how they had to sound and what they sang about. So, now these new guys don't wear cowboy hats and they have baseball caps and man buns and some of the style and swagger of hip hop (and some of the same kind of music too I think) and they just can't take it, these guys aren't doing it right! But the deal is, 'country music' has always been whatever music is popular with people who call themselves country music fans and who listen to the radio and buy to music and go to the concerts and become fans of the current stars. That's it. And that changes. In a lot of ways the carter family and the radio especially The Opry invented the business of country music but their style of music wasn't highly popular for long even though they made a lot of money touring and at one time it was forbidden to have a drum set on the opry stage but that changed and then when Hank WIlliams came along the young fans loved him but the older ones said he was ruining country music. But, now, of course, he is the epitome of 'authentic county.'

But these new guys are popular with young paying fans because they sing about the stuff that the young fans care about: beer, trucks, tail gates, America, parties, making love, small towns,

January 08, 2016  
Blogger Monson said...

And now there are country musicians like Sturgil Simpson whose biggest appeal I think is that he sounds kind of like Waylon Jennings and seems 'authentic country' in the way that us middle aged guys like.

and then there is the new genre of Americana (which mostly love) that Simpson kind of is a part of and they are very into being authentic down to usually playing older guitars from the 40s and 50s -- Martins and Gibsons that look beat up and beat to death. There is no way any of them would show up on stage with a brand new top-of-the-line Takamine acoustic even though I doubt the audience would hear a difference

January 08, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's interesting about Hank Williams and his reception.

The small amount bro-country bashing I've read has been a lot more "those guys are jerks" than "those guys are not real country." And when I would hear, say, Shania Twain, I would think of it as bouncy music and wander, other than her costumes, what was country about the whole thing. I would say that less distinguishable country music becomes from the music I've hears since I started listening to Irish music, the better I like it.

January 08, 2016  
Blogger Monson said...

Peter, that's my point, and I guess I might be the only one who thinks this: Shania Twain was country because country music fans liked her. That's it. Country doesn't 'sound' a certain way. It doesn't mean COUNTY so much any more, more just mostly white small town or even suburban people who hear something they like. Though, of course a lot of country fans do still live on farms, etc. But rural people now are just as likely to like urban type music like rape and hip hop and dance music as they are 'country' music. It used to be you could tell something was country because you'd hear a steal guitar twang and a fiddle set to a two step beat. Now, you'll never hear those sounds on country radio and the young people don't like it. Just like young black people from about the mid60s on didn't really want to do 'blues' music and play guitars onstage.

January 08, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You think maybe Martin and Gibson make replica models of the old guitars, bearing signatures of these new country guys, careful crafted to look bashed up and selling for well into four figures and maybe five?

I know so little about country music that I'm tempted to say a good song is a good song, no matter the genre. I heard "Walking After Midnight" at a barbecue joint in Houston once, and I thought, "Wow! This is almost good enough to justify the existence of country music."

My big country music disappointment that trip was hearing "The Pill" for the first time. I knew the song daringly broke ground for its subject matter, but when I heard, I realized if was nothing but a boring mid-tempo ballad that happened to have lyrics daring for the time.

Last up, I loved the Band's version of "Long Black Veil" for years before I learned that Lefty Frizzell had recorded first, so I guess I like Lefty Frizzell, too.

January 08, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mike, that's a good point. I try never to forget the explosive diversification of popular music of all kinds. And yep, one guy I know who comments on Facebook who loves Sturgill Simpson's music invokes Waylon Jennings' music all the time without, however, considering "authenticity."

I know that Johnny Cash gained widespread respect for being open to music beyond the boundaries of what's normally called country, and also that he slammed the conservatism of country radio.

January 08, 2016  
Blogger Monson said...

The new 'country' guys play nice new guitars acoustic and electric and don't care about having old stuff with a couple of exceptions. It's the 'Americana' that isn't such a lucrative genre where they play the old instruments, and they are actually old. But, Fender guitars does make Telecasters and Stratocasters that are purposefully 'reliced" to look super old when they are brand new. These are popular in blues, rock, and some country/americana people. I think it's weird.

January 08, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder to what extent this authenticity comes into play in music from other countries. How did old folks in Spain react when Paco de Lucia started playing flamenco that sounded like jazz? When and other would start using electric bass?

And if I'm listening to music from another country, with lyrics I can't understand, how the hell do I know that's authentic? And why should I care?

January 08, 2016  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

One of the things that Faking It book talks about is that when the WPA music recordings were made they separated black and white musicians if they were playing together and that record companies then also separated musicians into black and white groups. And then when folk musicians in the 60s rediscovered the music they found it the way it had been recorded. So what they thought of as authentic really wasn't.

There's also a really good scene in the movie Matewan when the striking coal miners have been run out of town and are living in the woods in separate camps and the black, white and Italian guys start to play music separately and then join together.

I don't know how authentic that scene is, but I like to believe it ;).

January 11, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Do you mean they recorded black musicians and white musicians separately, then mixed the tracks into one recording?

January 11, 2016  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

No, I mean they found bands that were mixed black and white and separated them. There's a story of one guy saying later that he played some guitar where there should have been a fiddle but the guy doing the recording wouldn't put the black and white musicians on the same recording.

January 11, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aha. Thanks.

January 11, 2016  

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