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“I dreamed I was flying / I dreamed I was found / beyond the barbed wire / high above the underground”

January 3, 2010

Dork that I am, I first got seriously interested in popular music by way of modern poetry.  I spent a fair portion of my junior year of high school picking through The Waste Land, and due to the fact that I’d experienced one of those formative a-ha moments while reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” earlier that year, I found myself enjoying this process a little more than was probably necessary or appropriate, to the extent that I would actually try to talk about T. S. Eliot with whomever seemed minimally down with listening.

That pretty much consisted of my buddy Daryl.  At the time, Daryl was in the midst of his own fairly rigorous survey of progressive and album-oriented rock music of the 1960s and ’70s, and he tried patiently to recount his explorations even as I yammered on about my own.  Our exchange was fueled by the discovery of a point at which our obsessions seemed to converge:

          Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
          The Titanic sails at dawn
          And everybody’s shouting
          “Which Side Are You On?”
          And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
          Fighting in the captain’s tower
          While calypso singers laugh at them
          And fishermen hold flowers
          Between the windows of the sea
          Where lovely mermaids flow
          And nobody has to think too much
          About Desolation Row

“What do you figure Dylan’s getting at there?” Daryl asked me good-naturedly, though no doubt the broad outlines were clear to us both.  I hemmed and hawed.  Sure enough, Bob Dylan knew his Eliot—the sea-girl imagery of “Prufrock,” check; the Fisher King of The Waste Land, check—but his attitude toward the material seemed to be pitched somewhere between wry amusement and sneering dismissal.  Although the entire high-modernist poetic project at least merited a verse in “Desolation Row”—one out of ten, but still—the Poet of Rock was clearly writing this stuff off as sort of a waste of time: faintly embarrassing, inadequate to the historical moment.  And this was in 1965.  Suffice to say I was not super-pleased to hear this.

I bought the LP anyway.  (Or I bought it because.)  Highway 61 Revisited was one of the first five or six albums I ever paid money to own, and of those five or six—no disrespect to Phil Collins intended—it’s about the only one that I still revisit regularly.  I’m also pretty sure that it’s the first album I bought not for the purpose of listening more closely, nor of listening whenever I wanted to, but for the purpose of able to listen at all: although Dylan was a national treasure, beyond famous—he’s no Bob Dylan, you might say of a middling lyricist, and everybody would know exactly what you meant—I never heard him on the radio, at least not in the western exurbs of Houston where I grew up . . . except of course when some DJ dusted off “We Are the World.”

For me this too was key to Dylan’s appeal, and nicely congruent with the appeal of those high modernists at whom he’d rolled his sunglass-obscured eyes: his music was esoteric, not for the uninitiated, hidden in plain sight.  This felt like another a-ha moment: the best stuff isn’t going to find you on its own, platter-borne by invisible cultural apparatus; you have to go seek it out.  (I suppose the fact that I did my seeking in progressively more arcane magazines—Spin, Magnet, The Wire—also proved gratifying, in that it made music once more comfortably subordinate to text.)  In 1994 I graduated from college, moved up to Austin, and began making weekly expeditions to Waterloo Records and Cheapo Discs on Lamar Blvd. where I’d convert my meager paychecks into compact discs, emphasizing the obscure, the local, the difficult, and the weird.

Given all the above, you will probably not be surprised to learn that I do the bulk of my listening at home; I don’t catch a lot of live music.  As big a Dylan fan as I was during college, I didn’t get around to seeing him play until last year, shortly before Halloween.  An avid concertgoer I know through work—very cool guy—wound up with a couple of tickets he couldn’t use, and when he asked if K and I wanted to buy them off him, we were like: sure, man.

We had, of course, heard the warnings about Dylan.  He will not speak.  He will regard the audience with an indifference that borders on contempt.  His voice is shot.  You will not recognize any of the songs, not even the classics.  Not so, my friends.  Lowered expectations are the key to living well, obviously, but this was a good show even adjusted for deflation.  Dylan seemed to be having a great time: grinning a lot, prancing around, boogieing behind the organ.  He introduced the band; he thanked the audience; he exhibited genuine humor and at least a semblance of warmth.  And he wasn’t coasting, either.  Much of Dylan’s career seems to have consisted of attempts to figure out what his voice can and cannot do; there’s no real question that it’s deteriorated, but I’d argue that he turned some kind of corner circa 2000 with “Things Have Changed,” and that these days his phrasing is better than ever.

All that said, the thing about the concert that has really stayed with me had nothing to do with Dylan, or almost nothing.  This 2009 tour marked the return as Dylan’s lead guitarist of a dapper gentleman named Charlie Sexton; the high points of the show all involved the almost paternal-filial interplay between these two dudes.  The stage setup based Dylan behind the organ at house right, Sexton dead center, and Sexton had no trouble occupying that ground.  There is a whole list of things one can reasonably expect to be thinking while walking out of a concert starring one of the most significant and consequential human beings to pass through the Twentieth Century; I would not have expected Why isn’t Charlie Sexton more famous? to be on that list.

And yet.  This is Charlie Sexton in 1985, at age sixteen:

“Beat’s So Lonely” remains Sexton’s biggest chart hit: his first and only appearance on the Billboard Hot 100.  I have no recollection whatsoever of hearing it when it came out.  A little research suggests that the music-buying public’s enthusiasm was tempered by suspicion, and this seems plausible, though it’s tricky to articulate exactly why.  There’s Sexton’s relative youth and implausible beauty, of course, as well as the fact that the song is derivative . . . but these are not typically factors that work AGAINST the success of a single, or of the artist who performs it.

A contemporaneous Texas Monthly article by radio legend Jody Denberg provides some clues.  In 1985 Charlie Sexton may have been a fresh face on MTV, but in his hometown of Austin he was a known commodity: a junior member of the extended blues family surrounding Clifford Antone’s nightclub which famously included W. C. Clark, Lou Ann Barton, Speedy Sparks, Kim Wilson, Angela Strehli, and Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughn.  Even by early-70s-Austin standards his upbringing was unconventional: dad locked up on pot charge, school and home departed at age thirteen, etc.  In 1982 Charlie snagged a gig as lead guitarist of Joe Ely’s band and opened some shows for the Clash; soon he had a six-figure major-label deal and was doing session work for some of the hugest names in MOR rock.  By the time “Beat’s So Lonely” hit the airwaves, Sexton was understood by Austin’s core music arbiters to be a legit rock and blues artist.

He was not, however, understood to be a legit new wave artist—if Austin’s music arbiters would even admit to the possibility of such a thing—and this may be where the trouble started.  The old gang tuned in Charlie on the MTV expecting a pomaded pompadour and flatted fifths; instead they got a hairsprayed cockatoo crest and a stuttering drum machine.  While the rest of America wondered Who the hell is this kid? Austin was asking Who the hell does this kid think he is?

In short, Little Charlie Sexton had what you might call an intelligibility problem.  It wasn’t hard to figure out what was going on in “Beat’s So Lonely;” the tougher questions were the aforementioned who, and also why.  Most mid-80s pop fans would have had no problem with motorik synths and whammy-barred harmonics, David Sylvian’s louche decadence, Sid Vicious’s bratty menace, the laddish flippancy of Simon Le Bon . . . they just hadn’t seen these ingredients scrambled before in quite this way.  Furthermore, Sexton’s cribs and influences were apt to be judged not as diverse and wide-reaching, but as merely arbitrary—or generated according to commercial formulae—and somehow internally contradictory, hence invalid on some aesthetic or ideological grounds.

They weren’t.  From twenty-five years’ distance the obvious point of reference for “Beat’s So Lonely” is Bowie: the vocal tones and mannerisms (lead and backing) are copped straight from him; the song’s arrangement is of a piece with his roughly contemporary post-Lodger move back toward pop and “plastic soul.”  And this makes sense: recall that Sexton’s friend and mentor Stevie Ray Vaughn is all over Bowie’s Let’s Dance album from 1983.  Also worth mentioning: Sexton’s producer and co-composer on “Beat’s So Lonely” was a dude named Keith Forsey, producer of albums by Billy Idol and the Psychedelic Furs as well as the storied soundtrack to Beverly Hills Cop, the same guy who co-wrote “Hot Stuff” for Donna Summer and “Flashdance . . . What a Feeing” for Irene Cara and “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” for Simple Minds and “Shakedown” for Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band and “The Heat Is On” for Glenn Frey, and who thereby exerts a plausible claim on having defined the auditory sensorium of cocaine as surely as the Velvet Underground did that of heroin.  Significantly for the topic at hand, Forsey was the drummer for and protégé of disco producer and electro-pop godfather Giorgio Moroder—who had himself lately collaborated with Bowie on “Cat People (Putting Out Fire).”  (The mid-80s were fat years for parentheses in song titles, evidently.)  In 1985, Bowie’s influence on pop was so omnipresent as to be almost invisible; by that time he had also entered a fiscally fruitful but creatively fallow period that saw him drifting somewhat out of fashion, and I suppose listeners can be forgiven for failing at the time to peg Sexton as a member of the Bowie fan club.  Bowie himself WAS paying attention; in 1987 Charlie Sexton found himself opening shows on Bowie’s much-derided Glass Spider Tour.

Anyway, my point is that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with “Beat’s So Lonely”—no symptom that definitively indicates the condition limiting Sexton’s potential stardom.  We have to broaden our inquest.  Although implications are worth teasing out, the problem is actually kind of obvious, and can be summed up like this: Charlie Sexton is not David Bowie.  This statement might be taken to mean that the mantle of new wave pastiche is best donned by ambisexual British space oddities and eschewed by babyfaced salt-of-the-earth bluesmen from Central Texas, but that doesn’t quite get it, either; the key element is more evanescent than biographical particulars can catch.  The issue is not form or content, but attitude and style.

The smartass diagnosis as to why Charlie Sexton didn’t become famous in the late 1980s would be that “Beat’s So Lonely” was the only good song on his major-label debut.  Although there’s some truth to that, I’m obliged to point out—just, y’know, e.g.—that Mellow Gold and Pablo Honey also contain only one good track apiece, and things have gone pretty okay for Beck Hansen and Radiohead since they came out.  What these two artists managed to do, what Bowie has made several careers of doing, what Charlie Sexton (along with most other worthy and talented artists) did NOT manage to do, is to leave their listeners with an unscratchable itch, a sense that they’ve missed something in the stupid hooky pop tunes they’ve just heard, something that just slips farther away the more they listen.  No matter how entertained we are by Bowie or Beck or Radiohead, we always suspect that they themselves are somewhat MORE entertained; though we may recognize and comprehend the materials they choose (or invent, or steal) to craft songs from, their compositional processes always seem motivated not so much by efficacy or calculation, but rather by urgent necessity, or by a personal idiosyncrasy that verges on perverseness.  These artists always seem to be hiding something, holding something back.  Sexton doesn’t.  What Sexton lacks, in a word, is cool.

I hope it’s evident here that I’m trying to use the word “cool” with extreme specificity: all available evidence suggests that Charlie Sexton is, y’know, a cool guy, good sense of humor, generous with his time and talent, fun to hang out with, etc.  When I say “cool,” I’m talking about a very particular cultural pose—one defined, for instance, by Dick Pountain and David Robins in their book Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude as “a permanent state of private rebellion” (their emphasis, here and below):

Permanent because Cool is not just some “phase that you go through,” something that you “grow out of,” but rather something that if once attained remains for life; private because Cool is not a collective political response but a stance of individual defiance, which does not announce itself in strident slogans but conceals its rebellion behind a mask of ironic impassivity.

It’s that last element, the mask, that I want to emphasize in the present context.  I’m not going to try to prove it here, but I WILL ask you to entertain for a moment the notion that virtually all of the major heroic figures in post-1960 popular music—I’m talking Elvis Presley, James Brown, the Beatles, Lou Reed, Willie Nelson, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Paul Simon, George Clinton, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, John Lydon, Elvis Costello, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, U2, Garth Brooks, Björk, Missy Elliott, Wilco, Outkast, Kanye West, Neko Case, and M.I.A., and you can lump the aforementioned Beck and Radiohead in with that bunch as well—are united by one primary quality, which is their more-or-less deliberate, more-or-less calculated use of such masks.  (Had I but space enough and time, I’d go on to argue that if you’re looking to place bets on what contemporary artists we’re still going to care about five or ten years from now, you should keep an eye out for these masks.  I’m currently inclined to put money on Justin Vernon, the Vampire Weekend kids, and Lady Gaga.  Any takers?)

The mask isn’t always easy to spot, but I think it’s present in all of the examples above, made apparent by odd zigzags and unexpected departures in their careers that aren’t (or aren’t entirely) attributable to the dictates of the market.  These artists are united in their tendency to inflict WTF? moments upon their audiences, curveballs that nevertheless are suggestive of a quirky interiority to which they never grant satisfying access.  In some cases this mask amounts to campy performativity; in others it’s just good old-fashioned mental illness . . . but often it manifests itself as a peculiar trick wherein the artists conceal themselves through the seeming act of EXPRESSING themselves, a move that the Lacanian analyst Darian Leader connects with the “terror molt” that some birds use as a defense: here, chew on these colorful feathers—issued with some discomfort from my own body—whilst I run the hell away from you.

This is not a trick I see the young Charlie Sexton trying to pull.  He seems to want us to get EXACTLY what he’s doing—not because he wants us to buy his album, but simply because he’s sincere in his enthusiasm and in his desire to communicate.  It’s impossible for me to condemn him for that.  Yet I believe it’s the presence of these qualities—and the concomitant absence of the mask—that more than any other factors have kept Sexton’s career human-scaled.  In this, he has plenty of distinguished company: I suspect the same absence-of-mask issue will ultimately result in the Grateful Dead’s output being assessed as less an artifact than an event; Zappa seems to be of increasingly academic interest for similar reasons.  Or to look at a more recent example, one who shares space with Sexton in Bowie’s long shadow: Nine Inch Nails (as jane dark pointed out at about this time last year) has been making good music for nearly two decades—four years longer than the Stones, twelve years longer than the Beatles—and yet I suspect that the nothing-if-not-sincerely-pissed Trent Reznor would have a hard time getting enough petition signatures to win a spot on the Artist-of-the-Century ballot.

On the other hand, I don’t think there’s any question that David Bowie himself belongs in the top echelon of the mask-wearing heroes I listed above, even if his acolytes don’t make the cut: he has succeeded as well as anybody in maintaining exactly the sort of cool and mutable pop persona that I’m talking about—although he cannot, and would not, claim to have invented it.

Bob Dylan invented it.  When we come across attempts—usually in the major media—to succinctly explain Dylan, it’s shocking how wrong they tend to get it: almost invariably citing Woody Guthrie, protest songs, the folk revival, the civil rights and antiwar movements . . . with maybe a vague and passing reference to the necessary fiction of the 1965 Newport electric scandal thrown in.  He helped unite a generation and inspired it to change the world: that’s the sort of thing we’re typically told, and that is exactly the opposite of why Dylan actually matters.  The young Dylan was attracted to folk music simply because it was serious and substantive; it became apparent soon enough that folk’s methods, aims, and values—functional, collective, egalitarian—were incompatible with and opposed to his own.  As early as Another Side of Bob Dylan it became clear that he’d opted to distance himself from his peers and fans in the folk scene; his monumental classics Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde were simply the shape that that rejection took: the shape of a mask.  In 1965, when “Like a Rolling Stone” climbed atop the pop charts and stuck there, the effect, of course, was an elevation of stakes for popular music and popular culture so vast as to defy adequate accounting.

As I walked out of the Dylan show in October, thinking about Charlie Sexton, I couldn’t shake the feeling that most of my fellow concertgoers were figuratively scratching their heads more or less like I was, at a loss for something trenchant or even appropriate to say about what we’d just seen.  The remarkable thing was how ORDINARY the show had been.  I don’t mean average—it was a good show—but ordinary, familiar, the way you might feel if I took you downtown to the Art Institute to see American Gothic in person after a lifetime of seeing it copied and parodied: Yep, you might think, That’s it, all right.  It’s become practically impossible to see or hear Dylan, because we see and hear him everywhere, in everybody’s music.  He set the parameters by which we evaluate pop, and we’ve internalized them so thoroughly that it’s almost impossible to historicize them, to understand how we acquired them and why.

There’s a story (I’ll give you Bono’s version) that when Sam Cooke played “Blowin’ in the Wind” for Bobby Womack and Womack professed not to understand how it had become a hit, Cooke responded that from then on it wouldn’t matter what a singer’s voice sounded like, only whether or not people believed that that voice was telling the truth.  What was not apparent at the time—what would be clear soon enough—is that Dylan’s truths were not universal, or even commonly-regarded, but particular, personal, and expressible only obliquely.   (For an illustration of this distinction, look no farther than Dylan’s infamous response to the erstwhile fan who shouted “Judas!” at him at the Manchester Free Trade Hall: “I don’t believe you,” Dylan seethed back; “You’re a liar!”  To the angry folk fans this must have seemed like a non sequitur—didn’t he mean to just say “you’re wrong” or “that’s bullshit”?—but on Dylan’s terms it made perfect sense.)  Among many other achievements, Dylan helped to clear the sluice through which the above-referenced concept of “cool” permeated popular culture; almost overnight, sincere attempts by artists to make themselves understood became suspect.  By 1967 Cool Hand Luke had furnished a catchphrase that did double duty as a handy situational summary and as an expression of the new values:

To put it another way, Dylan was as responsible as anybody for introducing and propagating a distinct aspect of Sixties culture that would eventually come to be known as “Seventies culture”: a continued opposition to The Establishment that also rejected traditional collective political engagement in favor of libertarian expressions of selfhood.  I hope you’ll forgive my understatement when I say the results of this shift have not, in my assessment, been uniformly awesome.  There’s plenty to suggest that Dylan himself began to perceive downsides in fairly short order, and that many of his out-of-nowhere twists and turns post-Blonde on Blonde were made accordingly.  If his move away from protest music circa Another Side was driven by his resentment at being typecast as a folk prophet, his subsequent moves were the seeming product of desperation and terror.  In abdicating his office among the Greenwich Village crowd, Dylan became an even bigger icon to an huge youthful cross-section of the global population—the Greatest Demographic, let’s call it—and could do nothing to shake these fans off: they remained focused and fascinated through his post-motorcycle-accident silence, through the deliberate retrograde stylings of John Wesley Harding, and even through his radical detour into pop-country on Nashville Skyline.  What Dylan doesn’t seem to have realized, at least not at the time, was that these contradictions and discontinuities were exactly what made him fascinating.  The only thing that finally permitted him a respite from public attention was a bunch of bad albums, beginning with 1970’s notorious Self Portrait—and at least some of these were surely produced with escape precisely in mind.

In a retrospective 1979 essay, über-critic Robert Christgau wrote the following:

Antimainstreamism is the crux of the decade. [. . .] I’ve been thinking about it myself since 1970, when circumstances forced me to coin the phrase “semi-popular music.” (Definition: “music that is appreciated—I use the term advisedly—for having all the earmarks of popular music except one: popularity.”) [. . .] In the ’60s, the best rock and roll had cultural life. The audience wasn’t as massive as some acolytes believed, but the music was broadly popular nonetheless, supported by a consensus that made it resonate in ways so-called high art could not. But in the ’70s the best rock and roll has had what might be called subcultural life; it is the domain of a new kind of elite, a pop elite. [. . .] It is no longer enriched by consensus—it has to justify itself formally, as art. [. . .T]he punks are right—among other things, many of them fairly wonderful, the ’60s were full of shit. It’s true that the era of good feeling bred some great popular music, but it’s also true that the good feelings was rooted in self-deception, especially regarding the malleability of power. And in the ’70s the powerful took over, as rock industrialists capitalized on the national mood to reduce a potent music to an often reactionary species of entertainment. In effect, what the best artists did in response, whether they played guts ball against the new hegemony, or [. . .] merely circumvented it, was to act semi-popular even when they were in fact much bigger.

Which is to say: they put on masks.  Dylan’s quicksilver shifts between 1964 and 1970 established templates and benchmarks for a generation of pop songwriters and created a blueprint for celebrity that still predominates today; they also made the world an increasingly hostile place for serious artists working in popular idioms who were disinclined or ill-suited to pursue similar strategies.  The marketplace adjusted, as marketplaces will do; what had been counterculture became simply subculture, and then became an array of demographic niches.  These days we automatically expect our music to declare clearly at the outset for whom it is and is not intended; Thriller was about the last thing everybody listened to that seemed to want to be listened to by everybody.

We can make dire pronouncements about the vapidity of industry pop in this post-“Macarena” era some other time; what I’m concerned about now—mostly because I don’t hear anybody else voicing concern about it—is the uniformly exclusionary edginess-slash-quirkiness of indie music.  In a worth-checking-out recent piece about Animal Collective, critic Simon Reynolds reaches back to Christgau’s “semi-popular” coinage to gently bemoan the fact that when obscure and genuinely far-out bands begin to incorporate accessible pop elements, they are invariably castigated for “selling out” by hipster fans who liked them back when they were, y’know, interesting, challenging, serious, whatever.  Reynolds points out that such avant/pop hybridization “calls into question both the mainstream and the margins: pop, for its lack of risk and reach, and the unpop peripheries, for their pointless extremism, concealed macho, impotent inconsequentiality.”  Good point, and I’d take his middlebrow apologia a step farther.  While it’s maybe unfortunate that a band like Animal Collective starts an argument in some squat in Greenpoint when it crosses the pop and unpop beams, the real problem here is the assumption that everything ought to originate in a niche, even if it doesn’t remain confined to it.  As long as that assumption prevails unexamined, society can be construed as no more and nothing other than overlapping demographics; the possibility of a common culture is foreclosed.  Art that admits the hopeful possibility of such a common culture and makes an honest attempt to address it needs to do more than make a few concessions to pop: it has to avoid exclusionary gestures; it has to use irony as a device rather than an attitude; it has to try to communicate without simply signifying.  I’m not saying ALL art needs to do this—my god, that would be horrible—but some art should, and it should not be scorned or ridiculed simply for doing so.  Animal Collective is worth keeping around, and I commend Simon Reynolds for sticking up for them.  I, however, am here to throw down for Charlie Sexton.

Although it’s nice to imagine how things might have gone for Sexton in a more perfect world, what has actually transpired might be described (to borrow the title of one of his own songs) as plain bad luck and innocent mistakes.  After the fleeting chart success of “Beat’s So Lonely,” the pop gears stopped meshing; nothing else on his debut album went anywhere.  In 1989 a single from his follow-up—“Don’t Look Back,” Sexton the sole credited composer—charted fleetingly; it’s clean and focused, devoid of any new-wave horsing around, but also businesslike and rather joyless: even as the music proceeds by the MOR numbers, the song’s cities-of-the-plain narrative suggests that the singer is already in flight from a corrupt and corrupting industry.  The trouble, of course, is that Sexton’s aptitudes and interests are not remotely indie; with his pop stock dropping, his best available option was, as it were, to look back.

Outside of, like, a WainwrightMcGarrigle family reunion, returns to musical roots do not get any more complete than Sexton’s next project: the blues-rock supergroup Arc Angels, which came together circa 1991.  The three-quarters of the band who were not Charlie Sexton consisted of the former rhythm section of the recently-deceased Stevie Ray Vaughn and the guitar-slinging son of Vaughn’s chief songwriting partner.  An Arc Angels song, “Too Many Ways to Fall,” was the first Sexton material I can remember ever hearing; I thought it was pretty good.

Unfortunately for Sexton, an album called Nevermind was also on the charts in 1991, and it swiftly became apparent that nobody was asking the question to which Arc Angels was the answer.  In retrospect, Kurt Cobain’s brief earth-scorching passage through pop culture seems like both a recapitulation of Dylan’s mid-60s burst of fame and the inevitable consequence of forces he then set in motion; certainly Cobain experienced his celebrity with the same sort of horror that Dylan did, and sought escape from it even more desperately.  In its vitriolic rejection of slickness and received technique—which echoed not only the Sex Pistols of ’76 but also the Dylan of ’65—Nevermind essentially stripped MOR rock of its remaining claim on artistic legitimacy; Cobain’s reading of “In the Pines” on MTV Unplugged then proceeded to gut folk and blues for good measure.  (He covered Bowie in the same set, of course.)  Beset by indifference (and by Doyle Bramhall II’s substance problems), Arc Angels hung it up in 1993.

My affection for Charlie Sexton, such as it is, was mostly earned by the album he released in 1995 while I was still living in Austin.  I played the hell out of Under the Wishing Tree when it came out, but prior to spotting Sexton onstage with Dylan last October I hadn’t returned to it in years.  Although the post-Lanois pseudo-voodoo heat-haze of Malcolm Burn’s production now shows its age a little, the tracks I liked then—“Wishing Tree,” “Ugly All Day,” “Everyone Will Crawl,” “Sunday Clothes”—I still like.  There is an oft-cited truism which suggests in one of its variations that virtuosity is the songwriter’s worst enemy, and that genius often amounts to grandiose ideas colliding with technical limitations and striking unexpected sparks.  It occurs to me that Sexton’s peculiar cross to bear—one that’s unlikely to garner him much sympathy—is that his inspiration has always tended to be outpaced by his own capacity to realize it; he’s too technically gifted for his own good.  On Under the Wishing Tree this disparity seems finally to close up: it seems that Sexton has figured out what he wants to do and how he wants to do it, how to tell his own story, what portion of the cultural landscape he can safely build on.

Which is not to say he sounds satisfied.  On “Everyone Will Crawl,” for instance, it’s hard not to imagine that he’s dreaming of a parallel pop universe somewhat more fair and just than the one in which he toils, one where he and his middlebrow cohort—Los Lobos, Tori Amos, Counting Crows, Freedy Johnston, David Gray, Neil Finn, Fiona Apple, Joe Henry, Pearl Jam, Aimee Mann, Michael Penn, Beth Orton, Ron Sexsmith, the Goo Goo Dolls, Patty Griffin, Elbow, Norah Jones, Josh Ritter, Rachael Yamagata, hell, even the goddamn Fray—can connect with their audiences unobstructed by fashion and still be accorded a measure of critical respect, and where the desire to communicate openly and the desire to say something substantive are not automatically understood to be contradictory . . . somewhere “high above the underground,” as it were.

I’ve been thinking about this sort of music and its place in the culture a lot lately— particularly since about November 4, 2008, when I saw the video below projected on an enormous screen in Grant Park:

This sort of knocked me for a loop, as the music playing in the background is taken from “Fake Empire,” the opening track on the album Boxer by the glum and hyperliterate Brooklyn band the National; it had been in extremely heavy rotation in our apartment for the past few months, but it was pretty much the last thing I expected to find myself sharing with a quarter-million new friends as we waited for the polls to close on the West Coast.  It is difficult to explain why the experience of hearing this music at that particular moment was so affecting.  Partly it was a matter of what recreational drug users refer to as set and setting—at that moment and in that place, everything was affecting—but there was something else, as well: a poignant sense that we had been recognized and welcomed, that we, we specifically, were part of what was happening, and that we belonged there.

Of course I felt a little sheepish about my reaction; this was, after all, only music by a band that I like and whose album I bought, and not a reflection of my core values.  Or was it?  This in turn made me aware of my own expectations regarding politics and culture—about the fact that it practically never occurs to me that EVERYBODY might like some of the same things I like, and about how I often don’t even WANT anyone to share my appreciation of these things.  I’m comfortable in my niche.  That is not necessarily a good thing.

And THAT in turn reminded me of a TV documentary about the 1960s that I saw once, which featured an interview with a former member of the Byrds; I want to say it was David Crosby.  The Byrd, whoever he was, told a story that for some reason I have never forgotten, about walking down a street in the Haight on the day in 1966 that Revolver was released.  Somebody came out of a record store and literally grabbed him, hauled him inside, sat him by a turntable, and dropped the needle on the album’s final track, “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

It was incontrovertible proof: the Beatles—the biggest band ever, bigger than Jesus—were turned on.  Only minutes before, the Byrd explained, he’d been thinking about how cool the scene going down in the Haight was, and how great it would be if more people could take part in it, and how impossible it was that that would ever happen.  And then suddenly, as the turntable spun and the song played to its end, he was convinced that he and his friends were about to take over the world.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2010 6:17 pm

    There is a lot here that I agree with and a lot that somehow I do not, but I’m not really sure WHYYYYY. Is Cool really a mask that one wears, and puts on and off and on and off and on and off? I kept thinking that with Dylan, with some of the characters in Elliot’s work, and with other example, the coolness was not really a mask, so much as a drink they drank one time and were forever changed by it. I like the idea of Coolness as something that one “puts on,” – a contrived choice that covers up who they really are – but for some people, I think that this contrived, masquerading choice is more of a . . .

    [other metaphor I cannot think of now ].

    Wondering if you will reply! Please-o-do-o!
    -BPcg

  2. January 7, 2010 10:48 pm

    First, Bethie P, check out these anagram poems that Chris Hutson called our attention to earlier this evening: http://www.modernhumorist.com/mh/0005/anagram/ The very first one is an homage to your man, T to the S.

    Next, it seems like “masks” don’t have to be “contrived” exactly, and that masquerading can almost be a default more than a choice. Like people who are Cool in “a permanent state of private rebellion”-style way, per the definition of Cool put forth in this post, aren’t necessarily posing in a calculated/manipulative way, but in an instinctual/this-is-what-I-automatically-do-to survive kind of way. Like Cool born of necessity. Hence the “rebellion” part–the Coolness is what the Cool people resort to (like the terror molt) to get by in a world that is maybe not always so cool to the non-mainstream/the artistic?

  3. January 7, 2010 11:15 pm

    Hey BPcg, sorry it’s taken me awhile to respond . . . have you thought of that metaphor yet???

    Although I’m not completely sure I’m thinking of it in the same way that you are, I really like the idea of the transformative Alice-in-Wonderland-style potion, and there are certainly artists to whom it applies — though I can’t think of many examples right now. I’d be interested to hear of who else you’re thinking of, and what moments you’d identify as their moments of ingestion . . .

    Partly our disagreement — to the extent that we have one — may stem from the fact that “cool” can and does mean a bunch of things, at least some of which are probably not just different but contradictory. I think K has “cool” in the sense that I mean to use it basically right in her comment, and I’d make the additional qualification that cool is not only a name for a strategy that artists use to defend themselves from a hostile society, but also — maybe more so — from an ADORING society. Cool is always concerned about being liked the wrong way by the wrong people, which can be a problem. (On the other hand, cool never believes its own bullshit, which is commendable.)

    Mostly I guess the clarification I wanted to make is this: your magic-drink example is a compelling metaphor for the creative process, and/or the process of BECOMING an artist, and as such (if I understand you right) it’s a description of the artist’s essence or inner life. Cool (in the sense that I’m using it) suggests that the artist’s inner life is hidden from us, or that the artist is misleading us about it, or at the very least that we aren’t getting the whole story. It’s not so much that the artist’s inner life is revealed or hidden; it’s that that whole aspect of the artist is placed in brackets, or maybe in quotation marks. A mask, after all, doesn’t make you invisible; it just makes it hard for us to figure out who you really are, and what you’re up to. We don’t wear masks to hide; we wear them to play games and steal stuff.

    But I may be misunderstanding you. Holla back! And thanks for reading!

  4. January 10, 2010 3:34 pm

    Oh, hey, Beth, as I was driving to work last week, I heard an interview on NPR with Damian Kulash and Tim Nordwind of the band OK Go, and Kulash said something that’s helpfully illustrative of what I’m trying to get at above:

    “Because even when you’re not wildly successful financially, and even when you’re not at the top of the charts, ANYTHING that works gives everybody a reason to sort of push you in the direction of that thing that worked, and you can spend your life sort of imitating yourself. And we had some things on our last record that were wildly successful. And coming home and trying to figure out how to play the part of yourself, y’know, like: how am I going to be that person that wrote this thing four or five years ago, who I just don’t associate myself with at all anymore? And it takes, like, some pretty big acts of courage, I think, to just be like: I am not going to do anything like what I did last time.”

    The concerns he’s describing are the STARTING POINT for the kind of cool I’m talking about. (And let me rush to say that OK Go is not REMOTELY a cool band. By actually articulating this stuff at all, Kulash has already departed from the requisite cool script: somebody really seriously cool would NEVER admit to having these concerns; they’d just be all: “Yeah, my last record was a hugely successful dance-pop album, and the new record is a bunch of mid-century chansons réalistes sung in the original French with Tibetan prayer-bowl accompaniment. That’s just, I dunno, what I’m into now.” [Shrugs, lights cigarette.]) Cool describes a potential strategy for responding to the problem that OK Go has at this point in their career: do they want to keep dancing on treadmills and cranking out power-pop and basically become Smash Mouth, or do they want to get weirder and broaden their palette and try to become, like, Devo or somebody? If their strategy is invisible AS strategy, they’re being cool; if they’re talking about it on NPR, they’re not.

    In case it needs to be reiterated, I don’t believe that one path is any better than another here. I just don’t see anybody sticking up for artists who choose NOT to employ the cool mask, so I thought I would.

  5. Andrew Benson permalink
    April 5, 2010 1:21 am

    I discovered your writing through a friend, who recommended the Ke$ha article, and I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate what you are doing here. “These days we automatically expect our music to declare clearly at the outset for whom it is and is not intended; Thriller was about the last thing everybody listened to that seemed to want to be listened to by everybody.” As someone who is absolutely guilty of being one of those elitist, chin-scratching music fans who is only recently allowing myself the leeway to rediscover the pleasure of the popular, it is at once heartbreaking and reassuring to read this line. Heartbreaking because you articulate so clearly what I have unconsciously been fearing, that we have collectively built this straw man out of Pop Music so that we can feel more awesome about being there and being clued in, and that it can be cool to like Lady Gaga if you are into her artifice or her Warholian gestures, but not necessarily in an honest and open enjoyment over her music and craft (just to give an example). I used to use the words “Guilty Pleasure” a lot in relationship to music that I enjoyed but wasn’t up to my intellectual standards, not avant garde enough to be taken seriously. I think that’s a really interesting idea, guilt over enjoying something that doesn’t fit your self-image, and I think it’s compelling to find cases where entire groups of people will share the same guilt about enjoying the same song. Who’s keeping score? It seems like it’s akin to a sort of asceticism, in that it’s almost entirely self-inflicted. Wouldn’t we get more positive social feedback if we just liked the same stuff as everyone else? Why is it some sort of hipster sin to unabashedly enjoy something that doesn’t have the right badges of obscurity, even though everyone in your social group owns the same MP3s as do countless suburban teens? Is obscureness or coolness something that becomes more carefully guarded and desperate when everyone has access to the same information, same online music stores, same blogs?

  6. April 6, 2010 2:18 am

    @ Andrew —

    Thanks very much for checking out my relatively paltry back catalogue, and for the kind and well-crafted comment. I hope you’ll forgive me for recycling something I just typed in a Ke$ha-related exchange, which is that as I get older, I find myself less and less able to get interested in pleasures that are not at least somewhat guilty.

    I don’t know if you keep up with k-punk at all, but that dude has delivered some pretty provocative (and not uncontroversial) posts on this kind of engagement, i.e. engagement that involves and implicates the audience. This is a pretty good place to start, if you’re interested . . .

    Thanks again!

  7. Tom Snee permalink
    April 6, 2010 2:21 pm

    I do remember Beat’s So Lonely and the Charlie Sexton phenomenon and I think the poor kid was just a victim of his own hype. I was a sophomore in college at the time and worked for my college radio station and every day, we got some update on the new and utterly brilliant Charlie Sexton and his upcoming debut album. He had this deep, sonorous voice, we were told. He could wail on the guitar. He was musically wise beyond his 16 years. The tastemakers in Austin had deemed him brilliant (and back then, earning the approval of the Austin tastemakers pretty much guaranteed credibility). I took the hype with a grain of salt, because though I was only a sophomore, I had already developed a fairly strong bullshit meter for things like record company publicity, and seen more than a few acts labeled as brilliant flame out quickly. Still, it worked some sort of magic on me so when I dropped the needle on my first listen, I was expecting something great.

    What I got was drum machines and a synth. I got Thompson Twins. I got OMD. I got something from the soundtrack of a John Hughes movie. Sure, it had a guitar solo that from all appearances seemed like a good one, but I never bothered to pay much attention to it because I couldn’t get past the drum machines and the synth. It’s not so much that it was a bad song, I admit that. It was certainly listenable, pleasant and inoffensive. But it was mostly disappointing, because we had been led to believe we would get some kind of blistering blues-rock monster and instead we got drum machines and a synth. I was expecting a combination of Prince and the Replacements and was delivered Wang Chung.

    In the coming weeks, I’d play other songs off the album, hoping that Beat’s So Lonely was an anomaly, but never found any of them to be much more than generic mid-80’s pop rock. Maybe they were more than that, maybe I was just too poisoned by my initial experience to notice it. Whatever it was, I quickly forgot about Charlie Sexton and never even thought about him again until I saw a few years ago that he’d taken in with Dylan.

    Looking back, I feel bad for the guy. He was was thrown to an audience who awaited him with an enormous sense of anticipation, and it wasn’t fair to expect a 16 year old kid to live up to those kinds of high expectations (sure, Justin Bieber is also only 16 and handling the pressure well, but he was accompanied by nothing but low expectations, really, really low expectations that he could not meet only if he was in a vegetative state). In that way, I think poor Charlie was doomed from the start. Not that his career hasn’t been productive–it’s not like he busking the subways for a living–but he was never going to achieve the kind of fame he seemed destined for.

  8. April 12, 2010 9:48 pm

    @ Tom —

    Thanks for reading, and for chiming in. I’m a few years younger and quite a bit less hip, and therefore have no memory of Sexton’s emergence (such as it was) into the spotlight, so your account is valuable and appreciated.

    I just got back from the Associated Writing Programs conference in Denver, and while I was there I heard a panel discussion in which Davis Schneiderman demolished the cliché of the blank white page that writers face when they sit down to write. (He pointed out that the “blank” page faced by word-processor-users contains a bunch of dropdown menus, toolbars, a taskbar, a start button, some rulers, and so forth; this was in the context of a much larger point that I’m not going to get into here.) Sexton’s stumble coming out of the gate is a reminder that the methods, manufacture, and packaging of a work of art are PART of the art, and that the first task of any artist is to manage the audience’s expectations. Increasingly we see artists rise to prominence — Lady Gaga springs to mind — for whom hype is the PRIMARY medium in which they work; although this game is being played now very deliberately at a very high level, it has ever been thus.

    Thanks again!

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