Corollary to Rule Number Three
Elmore Leonard died back in August, as you have probably heard. His passing has been characterized as the loss of a national treasure, and based on the five or six books of his I’ve read over the years, that seems like a pretty fair assessment.
Leonard began his career as a writer of pulp westerns, but achieved popular success in crime fiction, where he managed to locate a fertile patch of turf midway between wisecracking romantics in the Raymond Chandler mold and their more spartan hardboiled rivals, and then to cultivate that patch with awe-inspiring consistency. Leonard was funny, but not zany; he was witty, but resisted being clever. He didn’t let his plots push his characters around, and he also had no apparent use for the shadowy psychopathology that fuels the works of his most critically-lauded midcentury peers: nobody in an Elmore Leonard novel is a case study, or a symptom of anything.
Leonard’s great achievement, it seems to me, is his evocation of the idiosyncratic moral universe in which his books always take place; everything else for which he is justly praised—his off-like-a-shot narration, his fleshed-out characters, his ear for dialogue—proceeds from that. The inhabitants of Leonard’s world can never be sure of the consequences of their actions, and they’re too foggy on their own motives to ever settle on a solid code of conduct. What they fall back on instead—if they know what’s good for them, which most of them don’t—is an attitude, or maybe more accurately a stance. Leonard’s heroes understand what they can and can’t get away with, and they know what they look like through other people’s eyes: what they seem to be. Most importantly of all, they know when it’s time to shut up and pay attention. (Leonard’s vaunted dialogue is as much or more a tribute to the value of listening than to the value of talking.) The categorical imperative of this moral universe can be summed up with Leonardesque conciseness in two words borrowed from one of his titles: Be Cool.
Although Leonard’s dialogue is richly excerptable, his adroit treatment of violent action is less so: it’s hard to convey a sense of the slow build to these scenes, and harder still to convey what he cannily omits from them. Nevertheless, I’d like to take a quick look at a few paragraphs from Pronto, the 1993 novel that introduces Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, who went on to feature in two more Leonard books and is now the protagonist of the giddily acclaimed FX series Justified. If you’re planning to read Pronto (and I think you should) and you don’t want me to spoil anything for you (as if that were really possible) then please skip on ahead to the Cayucas video below.
The scene from which I’ll quote is set in Liguria, on Italy’s northwest coast; Marshal Givens is there to retrieve an on-the-lam Miami bookie, and has, of course, run afoul of the mob:
Now the fat guy waved his pistol at Nicky, saying, “Come on,” and started toward Raylan again, getting a sincere look on his face as he said, “We want to talk to you, man. Get a little closer, that’s all, so I don’t have to shout.”
“I can hear you,” Raylan said.
The fat guy said, “Listen, it’s okay. I don’t mean real close. Just a little closer, uh? It’s okay?”
Getting within his range, Raylan thought. If he knows what it is. The guy was confident, you could say that for him. Raylan raised his left hand, this time toward the fat guy.
Then lowered it, saying, “I wouldn’t come any closer’n right there. You want to talk, go ahead and talk.”
The fat guy kept coming anyway, saying, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it.”
“You take one more step,” Raylan said, “I’ll shoot you. That’s all I’m gonna say.”
This time the fat guy stopped and grinned, shaking his head, about sixty feet away now. He said, “Listen, I want to tell you something, okay? That you should know.” He took a step. He started to take another one.
And Raylan shot him. Put the 357 Mag on him, fired once, and hit him high in the gut. Raylan glanced at Nicky standing way over on his left, Nicky with his pistol about waist high Raylan put the Mag on the fat guy again, the guy with his hand on his gut now, looking down like he couldn’t believe there was a hole in him before looking at Raylan again, saying something in Italian that had a surprised sound to it. When the guy raised his pistol and had it out in front of him, Raylan shot him again, higher this time, in the chest, and this one put him down.
The sound echoed and faded.
Raylan turned his head.
For characters who are slow to pick up on when to speak, when to listen, and when to make a move, things tend to end poorly in Leonard’s world. Note how Leonard—the master of whip-smart dialogue—sets up the above-excerpted killing with a conversation that’s calculatedly lame. The “confident” fat guy thinks he can smooth-talk his way into an advantage, but he’s not a very good talker: everything he says is vacuous, obviously serving no purpose but to cover his approach. He also thinks this straight-arrow American lawman won’t shoot unless he’s shot at, won’t actually kill over the mere crossing of a line arbitrarily drawn. Maybe we, the readers, think this too.
What’s effective in this scene is its faintly nightmarish quality, both surreal and super-real, as characters who have been playing a game with each other discover too late that they’re using different rules. Like all crime novels, Leonard’s books necessarily depend on violence or the prospect of it for their appeal, and as such they’re open to the charge of being exploitative. Still, for whatever it’s worth, Leonard’s scenes of bloodshed feel true in their circumstances to the way such altercations seem to happen in real life: somebody stubborn encounters somebody stupid, and they both have guns. The situation with Raylan and the fat guy just seems too dumb to actually play out the way it does; we’re not quite ready for what happens.
It’s worth noticing how carefully Leonard lines us up for the slight shock the scene delivers when Raylan shoots; it’s also worth noticing how hard he works to make that care seem like carelessness. Take a look at the description of Raylan raising and lowering his left hand: Leonard separates the two halves of this gesture with not only an ungrammatical period but a full paragraph break between the dependent and independent clauses, producing a queasy slow-motion effect at the level of syntax. (This adventurousness with grammar gets even more pronounced after that first shot is fired, with subordinating elements receding to reflect Raylan’s broadcast attention: good luck diagramming the sentence that includes “. . . Nicky with his pistol about waist high Raylan put the Mag on the fat guy again . . .”)
Significantly, that paragraph break as Raylan moves his left hand also suggests a cinematic shot-reverse-shot. As the hand goes up we’re in Raylan’s head, looking at the fat guy through his eyes; then—period, paragraph—the hand comes down, and we’re looking at Raylan now, from a distance, no longer privy to what he’s thinking. This is critical to achieving the surprise that Leonard is aiming for, a surprise sprung not by revealing but by withholding information: although we’ve just been in Raylan’s head, hearing him assess the fat guy’s confidence and tactics, we weren’t told that he’d made any decisions about whether and when to shoot. Most writers—even, or especially, thriller writers—would prolong this moment like a Sergio Leone shootout, milking it for maximum tension; Leonard knows this, and knows that we know this, and uses our expectations to catch us off balance. (He tips the odds even further in his favor with the phrase “about sixty feet away now”—that adverbial now strongly suggesting that we’ll be receiving additional updates on the fat guy’s diminishing distance from Raylan, when in fact we won’t.)
The thrills of reading most mass-market fiction are pretty much those of watching competitive figure skating: the question is not whether the triple Salchow is coming, but only how adeptly it will be executed. The selection from Pronto provides evidence, as if it were needed, that Leonard is playing a bigger game. What’s most impressive to me is that he makes no attempt to do what virtually all other ambitious crime writers—even really good ones—do to qualify their work as “literary,” i.e. to tack on ornaments like social commentary, mythic allusion, and/or poetic language. (After all, as Elisa Gabbert has demonstrated, even contemporary open-form poetry has its own set of stock jumps.) Leonard’s art, by contrast, is subtractive, paring away received techniques and—as we saw above—even basic coordinating elements when it suits his narrative purposes. The combined effect of all his small omissions, misdirections, and discombobulations is to induce us to grab hold of the figurative armrests, as if we’ve come to suspect that our driver might be a little drunker than we thought: we’re now wondering whether this guy really knows what he’s doing. Leonard’s seemingly cavalier departure from the standard slow build of pulp-fiction syntax demonstrates that this book’s narration will not be leading us by the hand through the remainder of the tale. And that realization, naturally, will increase our suspense as we close in on the ending, since our efforts to guess what’s going to happen are now complicated by our efforts to figure out what kind of a book we’re reading, and whether it gives a particular damn about delivering the conventional pleasures of a crime thriller. When those conventional pleasures are indeed served up a few dozen pages later, it feels less like the clicking of formulaic genre gears than like a fortuitous accident, like things might not have worked so cleanly out after all. That’s pretty much how Leonard does his thing: staying a step ahead of our expectations, managing our attention from moment to moment, and doing so with enough humility to disguise his best and smartest narrative moves as sloppiness or whimsy.
I’d been thinking about Leonard a lot over the summer, even before he died. To be more specific, I’d been thinking about the famous and widely-quoted “Writers on Writing” feature that he contributed to the New York Times back in July of 2001, a piece that has come to be known universally among people inclined to compile, argue about, and obsess over putative “rules for writing”—of whom I am one—as Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing:
These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.
The most famous of the rules is probably Number Ten: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip—and understandably so, since many rightly detect in this rule a shift of responsibility from reader to writer that vindicates certain resentments lingering from high school English class—but personally I find it a little too glib to be useful. The Leonard rule that I hear quoted most often by actual writer-type-people is the pleasingly cut-and-dried Number Three: Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. It’s pretty great advice: once you start paying attention to dialogue tags, I promise that you will find violations of this rule to be among the surest indications that Amateur Hour is underway.
But I would also argue that the near-gospel status achieved by this rule comes with a small downside, that being an overemphasis on the lexicon of dialogue tags at the expense of consideration of their placement, which is where competent writers of narrative can really show off their ninja skills. Obviously the main purpose of dialogue tags is to inform us who’s speaking, and (when absolutely necessary) to help us situate the speaker in the scene, but that’s not all they’ll do for us. A dialogue tag can also function as a non-grammatical pause—a beat—that captures the rhythm of speech in a way that punctuation simply can’t. In the example from Pronto above, when Raylan says, “You take one more step, I’ll shoot you,” something happens at that comma that the comma by itself can’t convey: a squaring-off, a slight intake of breath that indicates that shit just got serious. Although we don’t know it yet, this comma marks the determinate moment in the scene, the one that seals the fat guy’s fate, and maybe Raylan’s too. The subtlety of the moment can’t really be rendered through the diffuseness of an ellipsis, or by the dramatic wait-for-it fermata of an em-dash. Something else is needed. Thus:
“You take one more step,” Raylan said, “I’ll shoot you.”
This placement-of-dialogue-tag trick does not, of course, qualify as a major discovery on my part, and is hardly unique to Leonard: any writer who knows what she or he is doing uses it from time to time. It’s the sort of technique that’s particularly indispensable to comic writers who need to slow down their punchlines; I first became conscious of the practice during my otherwise entirely clueless adolescence, when I noticed Douglas Adams doing it in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy . . . although in Adams’ case it can get a little out of hand, verging on shrug-shouldered self-parody:
Ford looked at him severely.
“And no sneaky knocking down Mr. Dent’s house while he’s away, all right?” he said.
“The mere thought,” growled Mr. Prosser, “hadn’t even begun to speculate,” he continued, settling himself back, “about the merest possibility of crossing my mind.”
(Re “severely,” “growled,” and “continued,” q.v. Leonard’s Rules Three and Four.)
And yet dialogue tag placement is still not exactly what I was thinking about over the summer. What I was thinking about, broadly speaking, is another basic but underappreciated function of dialogue tags: to reveal not only WHO is speaking but THAT someone is speaking at all. In conventional narrative writing this isn’t such a big deal, since quotation marks signal that we’re in dialogue, but in certain unusual narrative situations—in unconventional writing that omits quotation marks, for instance, or in narratives that are encountered aloud rather than on the page—the writer has to adopt other strategies to make it clear when we have entered reported speech.
Unless, of course, the writer doesn’t WANT it to be clear. What I was thinking about this summer, narrowly speaking, was the song “High School Lover” by the band Cayucas (which in a recording-studio context pretty much just means singer-songwriter Zach Yudin). The song appears on their debut album Bigfoot, as well as, I gather, in, like, a Verizon commercial or whatever.
Speaking yet more narrowly still, I’ve been thinking about the song’s first thirty-odd seconds. The reverbed hey (or is it more of an eh?) that cancels the crowd noise and kicks things off registers mostly as a canonical rock ’n’ roll hype move, but there’s also something ambiguous in its tone—a little glum, a little peevish—that positions Yudin’s opening salvo somewhere between let’s-get-this-party-started! and somebody-stole-my-bike! The music it ushers in doesn’t exactly resolve the ambiguity: the boing-boing bassline sets out jauntily enough, but then retreats at its midpoint to an anxious whole tone (I think) from where it began before scrambling to complete its loop. Still, the slap-happy percussion that pushes everything along seems to indicate that this will be a fun track for the kids to mash-potato to . . . maybe when Yudin drops some lyrics we’ll know for sure which direction he’s headed. Ah, here’s we go:
Are you going to the party on Saturday?
Hell yeah! Mystery solved! It’s beach blanket bingo time! Oh, wait:
she asked. I said I didn’t know.
See ever since I saw you on the back of some guy’s bicycle
well I’ve been feeling kind of so-so.
See what I mean about the dialogue tag placement? Rather than making us feel the loneliness and resentment of the narrator as he avoids the party and walks around it and thinks about it all night long, the music and the first line contrive to put us AT the party that he’s skipping before we even realize he’s skipped it, which locates us at a peculiar critical distance from him: maybe a little guilty at his ostensible exclusion from our pop pleasure, and also a little unmoved by and skeptical of his apparent sullenness—if only because, c’mon, man, that is clearly not what this song is about. This critical disconnect is key to the somewhat subtle game that Yudin is playing.
You think I’m overthinking this? My friends, I have not even begun to overthink this. Because, check it out, after a first verse and a chorus that spell out the wronged narrator’s frustrations with the object of his unrequited affection, Yudin does it to us again:
Did you get the letters that I sent last summer?
you asked again and again.
Well they’ve piling up on the top shelf in my closet
and I read them every now and then.
Wait, what? When we reach the beginning of this second verse, everything we’ve heard so far has led us to believe that this is still our lovelorn narrator speaking, having spent his sorry summer trudging back and forth to an empty mailbox . . . but nope: we’re being quoted to again. It is in fact our feckless hero who has been receiving these letters—letters he still hasn’t acknowledged (“again and again,” she asked!)—and now he’s the one who’s sulking because this girl caught a lift on some other dude’s bike?! You’re not exactly proving your case here, cowpoke.
But let us consider the milieu of “High School Lover,” which is, of course, suburban adolescence (the narrator’s rival’s default means of transport being our tipoff). And this, of course, is exactly what suburban adolescence was like: a maddening sequence of shared attractions that somehow never amounted to anything, a chaotic and dispiriting jumble of hoped-for rendezvous thwarted by awkwardness, cowardice, confusion, and a persistent revulsion at the plain prospect of growing up. (Okay, that’s what suburban adolescence was like for ME. If you are the sort of person who spends a typical evening celebrating your latest eight-figure real estate deal by speeding down empty freeways in your Audi coupe with the stroboscopic pulse of high-mast streetlights lashing your coke-blown pupils instead of hanging out in your jammies reading cultural criticism on the internet, then your experience may have been different than mine, and I honor that.) What Yudin is attempting in this seemingly breezy summertime top-down pop song is an oblique investigation of the inexhaustible mystery of early adulthood, a mystery best summarized with the timeless question what was I thinking?
Toward this end, the song’s dialogue-tag confusion has one more trick to play, and this time it’s an ambiguity that isn’t—and can’t be—completely resolved:
It’s got me feeling kind of stuck, like what the fuck is going on,
someone tell me what is happening.
Yeah you’ve been acting like you’re too cool for far too long.
It’s okay, it’s just kind of embarrassing.
So . . . is this reported speech, or not? Is this the narrator taking the girl (Elizabeth) to task for her alleged fickleness? Or maybe imagining himself doing so, hours or days or years after her seemingly innocent query about his Saturday plans? Or is this Elizabeth talking, trying to figure out what specific as-yet-undiagnosed psychological malady might lead the narrator to ignore an entire summer’s worth of envelopes inventively collaged with clippings from Sassy? The text (ha! I just called some indie rock lyrics “the text”!) will support any and all of these interpretations. We have now passed the song’s point of laminar-turbulent transition, beyond which complete understanding—not only between the two mixed-up teens, but also between the narrator and us, the real audience for his complaint—has become impossible.
(If we seek clarification on this point from an external authority, we encounter yet more evidence of subterfuge. I had a brainstorm that checking the printed lyrics on the CD case—y’all remember CD players, right? Laser Victrolas, we used to call them?—might clear things up, and lo and behold and sure enough, the telltale punctuation is indeed present:
Are you going to the party on Saturday? / She asked, I said “I didn’t know . . .”
Got that? Those quotation marks are the only ones that appear in the printed lyrics to “High School Lover,” and they—just to be clear—CANNOT BE CORRECT. Although, as I have just argued, there are a couple of ways that quotes might plausibly be deployed in these lyrics, this ain’t one of ’em. Try it: Are you going to the party on Saturday? “I didn’t know.” Um . . . you didn’t know WHAT? And how is that an answer to my question?)
What is being dramatized in “High School Lover” is a progressive breakdown of language. Yet this is not some gnarly poststructuralist aporia that Yudin has sprung on us to expose hitherto unsuspected glitches in the linguistic system: language itself is not the problem. Rather, this collapse proceeds directly from a shortcoming in the narrator’s character, specifically his inability or unwillingness to communicate in words, to enter the semantic realm in any kind of committed way. This deficiency manifests most clearly in his failure to respond to Elizabeth’s letters, but also in the evasive lameness of the few rote utterances he does seem to manage, from his overloaded response to her opening question (I didn’t know not being equal to I hadn’t decided), to his characterization of his jealousy and wounded bafflement as “feeling kind of so-so,” to his insistence—really an admission—that he’s been “saying the things [he] thought [he] should.” The song’s various narrative muddles—its lack of clarity about who’s speaking to whom when, about whether actions and utterances are real or fantasized, etc.—are obviously also symptomatic of the problem.
But the song does evoke one moment when the narrator manages to speak up, to put aside his paralyzing concerns about coolness (and lacks and surfeits of it), to put himself at risk, and to say, for better or worse, what is on his mind: a moment when his “words came out one after another.” This is the moment—hard to situate precisely on the song’s timeline, but let’s figure it happens early, prior to the summer of piled-up letters—when he opens a door to the sight of Elizabeth undressing. Given that the incident shocks the narrator, like some reverse Actaeon, into unguarded speech, I think we can assume that it comes about by accident. We should note too that this scene is described in the chorus, i.e. in the part that repeats. (Okay, just once—it’s a short song—but still.) Even as words fail, the song’s structure tells us something the narrator can’t articulate and may not even understand: that this oops-forgot-to-knock episode is the key moment in the story, a memory that our mixed-up hero can’t get
rid of or get past. What he really needs, whether he knows it or not, is to somehow regain access to the shared vulnerability of this unplanned encounter, this instant of grace and peril, this missed chance to connect and be transformed.
That classical reference in the previous paragraph was not entirely gratuitous, I’m afraid. I have asserted elsewhere that myth, being the opposite of history, readily lends itself to depicting the suburban experience; it is also an easy medium for the dramatic and disempowered confusions of youth, for approximately the same reasons. In Ovid’s version of the Actaeon tale—not the original, but it might as well be, cf. Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”—the hunter spies the goddess Diana nude at her bath, a turn of events with which she is SO not cool; she turns him into a stag, and he gets killed by his own hounds. What’s interesting is that Ovid’s telling places less emphasis on Actaeon’s physical transformation than on the detail that Diana also renders him mute. (Not the most intuitive choice of punishment for a voyeur: when Tiresias, for instance and by contrast, stumbles upon the nude Athena, she blinds him.) “Go tell it, if your tongue can tell the tale,” Diana mocks (in the dogged blank verse of Brookes More’s translation), “your bold eyes saw me stripped of all my robes”—and sure enough, when the now-quadrupedal-and-antlered Actaeon tries to convince his ravening pooches to chill out for a second, he cannot speak to identify himself. The hunter . . . has become the hunted. Cue Twilight Zone theme.
Now, to be sure, Elizabeth is no goddess—she’s just another awkward teen—and at the sight of her nakedness our narrator is rendered a blabbermouth rather than struck dumb. (Notably, he never fesses up to what he says on this occasion.) But despite these differences, there remains a key correspondence between “High School Lover” and Ovid’s Actaeon story, in that both are built on the same conceptual armature: a right-angled axis of speech and sight. Our narrator may be uncomfortable using language, but he is very damn comfortable being a spectator, and he makes persistent efforts to keep his interactions with Elizabeth as optical as possible. His explanation of his noncommittal response to her opening question, for instance—if it’s actually articulated at all, which seems doubtful—employs the same verb twice in quick succession (“See ever since I saw you”); he then goes on to impugn the “look” in Elizabeth’s eyes, and to characterize the narrative circumstances as a “movie” that he’s been (passively) watching.
But the ultimate indictment of his retreat away from telling and toward looking arrives at the end of the second verse, in a cryptic final scene that isn’t much more than an image:
See I’ve been sneakin’ I’ve been sneakin’ I’ve been sneakin’
wondering just what I’ll see.
You turned around and stared, you squinted then you glared,
and I was leaning back in the passenger seat.
What to make of this? Well, as an interpretive palate-cleanser, let’s figure that the switch from the bicycle of the first verse to the automobile of the second suggests a passage of time, the approach of adulthood, and the waning of what once might have passed for innocence. Furthermore, the narrator’s location in the passenger seat indicates a persisting lack of agency and responsibility. Cool? Now let’s cut to the freakin’ chase: check out that semi-amazing sequence of looking verbs—the visual equivalent of dialogue tags—that describe what Elizabeth is doing in this scene. Stared! Squinted! Glared! Sounds like she’s none too happy with our guy. But if the principal aim of his passive-aggressive efforts has been to keep things, y’know, purely ocular between him and this chick, then it seems he has succeeded abundantly.
Because what’s actually happening here? Could it be that the narrator has talked one of his car-equipped sleazeball buddies into idling in front of Elizabeth’s house while he ogles her through the blinds, hoping for a deliberate repeat of his earlier fortuitous peepshow, only this time without any attendant obligation to account for himself: a purely retinal one-way encounter in which he risks nothing and holds all the cards? And could it be that bright-eyed Elizabeth has just gotten wise to their creepy stakeout, rushing indignantly to the window, leading him to hunker out of sight? You think?
Even if you don’t totally buy that scenario, I think it’s safe to say based on available evidence that this a song about a guy who won’t talk to a girl—even though he digs her, even though she clearly digs him—because he’d rather just look at her. Dyed-in-the-wool putz though this kid may be, the song leaves us enough room to grant him a small measure of sympathy: although his position is clearly more privileged than Elizabeth’s, he and she are both snared in the same set of social codes, codes that regulate his role as a spectator as assiduously as hers as an object on display, thereby making it just about impossible for them to encounter each other on equal footing. In a sense this social system—invisible, internalized, all-pervasive—gets the first and last word, evoked by the crowd noise that we hear under the beginning and the end of the track.
Anyway, that is some—some—of what I think is going on in “High School Lover.” And it’s not even my favorite song on the album.
During his brief time in the pop sphere—first with his solo project Oregon Bike Trails, and now with Cayucas—it’s safe to say that Zach Yudin has not exactly emerged as a critics’ darling. In reviewing Bigfoot for Pitchfork (and let’s face it, Pitchfork remains the indie rock equivalent of Standard & Poor’s) Ian Cohen awarded it the eyebrow-elevating score of 4.9 out of a possible 10, the sort of grade one might receive on an undergrad survey-course pop quiz for simply bothering to show up. Cohen’s major knock against Bigfoot seems to be that it’s derivative of the first Vampire Weekend album, an assessment that would probably be more damning if Bigfoot were obviously the inferior product. I don’t think that’s obvious at all.
I mean, sure, Cohen’s not wrong: Yudin’s work IS derivative—of Vampire Weekend, of Beck, of the Beach Boys . . . hell, I think I’m hearing some Cure in there too, and maybe some Belle & Sebastian, and who knows who else. But I’m afraid that if I make the pretty-much-self-evident point that Vampire Weekend is no less derivative—they seem to be doing their level best to approximate Matador-era Spoon playing Congolese soukous on a Wes Anderson soundtrack, and I say that with total admiration—then I will only succeed in reinforcing Cohen’s suggestion that being derivative is a bad thing, res ipsa loquitur, when in fact it’s one of the core strategies by which contemporary pop music connects with its audience, and has been so for quite some time, at least since the dawn of the hip-hop era. It seems like we ought to be past arguing about whether or not this pop intertextuality is legitimate: when musicians are able to engage the full depth and breadth of their iTunes-account-holding audiences’ musical lexicons, our default assumption should be that they will avail themselves of this option, not that they won’t. Back in the early 90s, a few rock and pop artists were buoyed to cultural prominence by their hip-hop-inspired facility with a vast range of styles and genres; these days such working methods are so run-of-the-mill as to barely merit comment. Observing that Yudin’s music is heavily referential to other music is about one degree of perceptiveness beyond just recognizing that the stereo is on; I’m not awarding any points for that. Am I out of line in expecting professional music critics to consider what a work is doing with its appropriations, instead of just consigning it to a twig on some imagined indie-pop version of the phylogenetic Tree of Life?
Cohen’s closing verdict on Bigfoot (or maybe on Yudin; the grammar seems a little deadline-damaged) is as follows: “observant, but lacks insight, descriptive without offering any commentary, nostalgic without feeling the pain from an old wound. [Pitchfork’s link—and seriously, Ian, I know you’re not writing this for, like, your dissertation committee or whatever, but is that really the best you could do?]” A few months after Pitchfork issued its thumbs-down of record, Paste ran a cover story on Cayucas that reads suspiciously like an awkward sidelong rebuttal of Cohen’s review; the author, Ryan Bort, pretty much argues that Bigfoot ought to be valued as a collection of catchy, simple, sentimental songs, and not faulted for its failure to blaze new trails, because, good lord, does everything have to be Metal Machine Music? It does not! According to Bort, Yudin . . .
. . . doesn’t approach his topics obliquely, instead simply remembering the nostalgic event he’s addressing and listing his associations, those things from that past that stick in your mind as mental totems of more innocent and blissful times. A certain kind of car, a girl on the back of a bicycle, that true-to-scale Michael Jordan poster on a wall—it all transports listeners to another time and place, and because of how friendly Yudin’s voice is, it’s hard not to feel good about all that’s past—even if regret is involved.
Bort’s take on Cayucas, I’m sorry to say, misses the mark even worse than Cohen’s does. The most cursory listen to “High School Lover” makes it clear that the girl on the back of the bike is no “mental totem” triggering bittersweet bliss, but instead a spur to contemplation and reassessment: very precisely the “pain of an old wound” that Cohen (through the expedient and imprecise filter of Don Draper) bemoans the supposed lack of. Oh, and that Michael Jordan poster? Damn glad you brought that up, Ryan, because it, on the other hand, is a perfect example of what Yudin is up to—just not for the reasons you’re arguing.
The lyric in question, which appears in the song “Will ‘The Thrill,’” is actually “Look at the posters that are on the wall / Michael Jordan standing six feet tall.” Live and in person, of course, Michael Jordan is six foot six; in other words, the poster is big, but it’s not “true-to-scale.” This is a detail that we’re meant to catch, and to think about. The song is probably dead-on accurate about the size of the poster; the poster is not accurate about the size of Michael Jordan. This is something that, say, a seven-year-old boy is unlikely to notice when that poster first goes up, but something that, say, a seventeen-year-old boy will notice when he’s wondering whether it’s finally time to take it down. The image evokes nostalgia, sure, but also a twinge of resentment at the countless small frauds perpetrated on us before we’re old enough to notice; it prompts a consideration of how our perceptions are embodied, and how our perceiving bodies change over time. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that it also provides an opportunity to think about the ways that gender in general and masculinity in particular are learned, rehearsed, and performed. (Similar gender-tweaking case in point: the California beach town that provided the band’s name is Cayucos, not Cayucas.)
But the best thing about the Michael Jordan poster line—the thing that makes it effective, and makes it representative of Yudin’s whole project—is that its subtle and complex resonances seem to have been evoked entirely by accident. In fact, these errors-that-aren’t-errors are all over Yudin’s songs, and their very ubiquity is the best clue that there is method in his apparent carelessness. Take, for instance, the late-placement-of-dialogue-tags trick that I described above: the resultant confusion about who’s speaking comes off as merely sloppy until Yudin pulls it a second time. There’s another, similar fakeout sixteen bars into the first verse of “High School Lover,” at the exact point where a half-century of pop-song convention leads us to expect the chorus to drop; Yudin knows this, and he knows that we know this, and he reinforces our expectation by placing the lyric “there was gonna be an ending”—which, thanks to the rhyme scheme, we can totally see coming—just prior to where we think there’s, y’know, gonna be an ending . . . and then he keeps the verse going for eight more bars.
For us listeners, this creates a tension akin to the sense that our cabbie has just driven past our exit . . . but tension, needless to say, is exactly what a songwriter wants leading up to the big release in the chorus, and delay and deferral are the classic means of achieving it. (Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell’s famous realization that a DJ can extend a track’s instrumental break by switching back and forth between two turntables spinning two copies of the same record, thereby driving a dance floor insane—a discovery that pretty much gave birth to hip-hop, and by extension much of the past 35 years of popular culture—is only the most obvious example of this method.) But here again Yudin’s trick isn’t to make the technique seem new, only to make it seem unintentional, which it most certainly is not. The lyric that immediately follows “gonna be an ending”—“to the story to the story to the story”—is a shift into neutral, a sputtering pause that lets us realize what’s just happened: the approximate equivalent of a cartoon coyote running in place in midair, its plunge into the chasm unaccountably interrupted. At first the repetition seems lazy, like a dummy lyric left in place, which reinforces Yudin’s feigned ineptitude; only when he does it again at the same spot in the second verse (“I’ve been sneakin’ I’ve been sneakin’ I’ve been sneakin’) does the finer grain of the song’s structure become apparent.
Yudin seems to have a real fondness for repetitions like this: lyrics that give the initial impression of being redundant, or slack, or gauche. Elsewhere on Bigfoot we find instances of shining sunshine, piled-up piles, and hidden-in hiding places (reiteration-with-grammatical-shift evidently being a Cayucas stock-in-trade) and these serve to advance Yudin’s purposes in a couple of ways. First, they seem stupid but sound great, particularly when braided into the already dense weave of assonance, consonance, and internal rhyme in the typical Cayucas lyric. Second, they signal something important about the scope of the project: about what it is and isn’t trying to accomplish, and how it does and doesn’t hope to engage its audience. Stating repeatedly that things are equal to themselves is a way of indicating that Cayucas has no particular thesis to advance, no case to prove, no real desire to impress us with cleverness or insight. The songs are playful, and thoughtful, but they’re not written in code; they contain depths and subtleties, but they don’t withhold them and don’t depend on them. The listener doesn’t have to resort to analysis to intuit that they’re there.
In other words, Yudin’s songs are pop in the most basic sense: they welcome all comers while privileging none, evincing an aw-shucks modesty that I am inclined to ascribe—perhaps counterintuitively, but think about it for a second—to absolute confidence and clarity of purpose. They take pains to lay no claim on any occult subcultural authority, but instead do business in an egalitarian zone where music is primarily a manifestation of musicians’ own fandom, and the barrier between band and audience is permeable to the point of impalpability: a precarious midrange sweet-spot that is, as Yudin’s own lyrics put it, “beautiful / somewhere in between dumb and kind of cool.”
Part of the deal with this egalitarian approach is that Yudin has to be really overt in citing his influences, lest they become Easter eggs for sophisticates: checkpoints instead of welcome signs, occasions for demonstrating that some listeners “get it” while others don’t. With (for example) Yudin singing from the low end of his pitch range in the persona of a puerile and delusional would-be lothario, “High School Lover” sounds a hell of a lot like a Beck song . . . which is why Yudin pretty much lifts the chorus melody from “The New Pollution” for his own song’s coda, a not-admitting-but-insisting gesture which makes the lineage impossible to miss and snatches canny comparisons from would-be critics’ throats. The opening song on Bigfoot (“Cayucos”) evokes the janglier end of the 1980s new wave pool . . . which I’m guessing is why it contains both the lyric “c-c-c-c-chameleon” AND some late-in-the-game guitar that very strongly recalls the main riff from “Just Like Heaven.” And so forth.
As Cohen’s piece indicates, Yudin’s just-own-it strategy for hipster-proofing his influences—which depends on his reviewers to grasp the obvious and then refrain from pointing it out—has not been 100% successful. Nevertheless, on this point I’m inclined to allocate Cayucas more sympathy than blame, especially since Yudin seems motivated by generosity toward critics and regular listeners alike . . . to the extent that there’s a difference these days. Okay, I promise I’ll lay off this soon, but the layers of complex half-assedness in this Pitchfork review are still blowing my mind: Cohen complains that “Ayawa ’Kya,” Bigfoot’s penultimate track, “sports the kind of onomatopoetic fake patois that people who hate Vampire Weekend assume they use in all of their songs.” But, um, dude, if Cayucas is—as you’ve just argued—worshipfully imitative of Vampire Weekend, shouldn’t we figure that Yudin knows they don’t use fake patois in all of their songs? And that “Ayawa ’Kya” might therefore be better understood as an affectionate parody of, let’s say, “Cape Cod Kwassa-Kwassa”—a parody pointedly written from outside the moneyed East Coast milieu that Ezra Koenig and his bandmates position themselves within, as indicated by the last intelligible line of Yudin’s song, “feel like I feel like I feel like I feel like I’m so poor”? Maybe? (Also, that’s not what onomatopoetic means. Glossolalic? Whatever.)
Anyway, my point here, basically, is this: there are smarter songwriters than Zach Yudin in the world, and there are less pretentious songwriters than Zach Yudin, too, but I think you would have a hard time filling up a city bus with songwriters who are both smarter and less pretentious. I think this is something that’s worthy of praise, and I’d like to see Yudin get more of it . . . or, at minimum, a closer examination than he seems to have received to date.
I’ve been giving the paid critics at Pitchfork and Paste a hard time—which I think they’ve earned—but I confess I’m not unsympathetic to the difficulty of their task: Bigfoot is a tough album to write a solid 700-(as opposed to 7,000-)word review of, if only because Yudin throws so few pitches into critics’ strike zones. In fact, Yudin’s not throwing much of anything anywhere. Toward the end of his review, Cohen—as if suddenly worried that he’s missed a stitch—accuses Yudin of “failing to recognize the difference between leaving something to the imagination and making the listener do all the hard work,” a charge which fails to acknowledge that these are not a songwriter’s only two options for engaging an audience. Yudin doesn’t neglect to “offer commentary” on the milieus and circumstances evoked in his songs; he purposefully avoids it. Rather than doing what virtually every other post-Johnny-Rotten indie-rock frontman does—i.e. asserting his status as a subcultural authority, a personality with something to say—Yudin has taken on a trickier mission, at once more modest and more ambitious: creating conditions for his listeners under which they can see the world through his eyes, consider the things he considers, and feel as if they got there entirely on their own. To work in one final sports reference that I have no real qualifications to employ, Yudin operates like the proverbial no-stats all-star: it’s sometimes hard to say exactly what he’s doing, but remarkable things seem to happen in his presence with surprising consistency.
And this, at long last, brings me back to Elmore Leonard, whom I obviously understand to be linked to Zach Yudin by more than the adroit use of dialogue tags. Leonard characterizes his famous tips for writing as “rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible;” by way of explanation, he adds: “If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character—the one whose view best brings the scene to life—I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.” That’s pretty standard show-don’t-tell writing-workshop fare up until that last clause . . . but that final step of killing your darlings, brushing over your own footprints, and vanishing behind the text is a doozy, and one that’s rare to see anybody even try to pull off successfully. (I used to think I’d spend a lot more time here analyzing variations on this approach to making art, which is why this blog is called what it’s called.)
A great many young writers pound out tens of thousands of words in the hope of cultivating an ephemeral quality often called “voice”—which near as I can figure refers to an engaging combination of style, substance, and sensibility—with the understanding that this quality is what will win them access to the iron-clad gates of the cultural apparatus, where this “voice” might one day, with the proper promotional nourishment, be cultivated into a brand. Leonard’s advice points the way down a vastly longer path, one that eschews pyrotechnic stagecraft in favor of a quieter and more measured approach that exerts a plausible claim on real magic—real because it occurs not on the page but in the minds of the audience, one at a time. (Leonard’s eleventh rule that sums up the previous ten: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”) It’s always been rare to see artists who have the poise and humility to work this way, and it seems rarer all the time—maybe because the cultural apparatus just doesn’t grant them admittance anymore.
I guess we’ll see. Props to Zach Yudin for giving it a shot.