But another kind of teacher, the artist, shows us how to see, and some of the most interesting are those who model growth of consciousness over time, using developing craft to expand ambition. These career arcs offer much pleasure and instruction, especially when combined with letters, memoirs, interviews, and secondary sources.
In literature, Joyce’s arc grew toward unintelligibility, as did Henry James’s, in a different way. Twain’s arc grew from high jinks through moral profundity and into prescient bitterness. In painting, J.M.W. Turner and Picasso come to mind.
Crazy Larry called yesterday to tell me the new ranking of items on his Top Five list of artistic ambition. He’s a struggling actor who would also like to be a prose writer, a musician-composer, a playwright, and a photographer. (By “like to be,” he means rich and famous from it.) He had decided to move songwriting up to number two. While I hate phrases like “you can’t do that,” I’ve asked him before if it’s possible to be good at any one thing if you spread yourself across many things that are very difficult. The idea had never occurred to him, which may be why his most recent role, in a student film, was that of “Dr. Slamball.”
As a soon-to-be-famous songwriter, Larry lamented that Abbey Road on the River, a huge annual celebration of The Beatles’ music, held in Louisville, Kentucky, had started again without us. This year, live bands will play all the albums, start to finish, and there’s a world concert premiere for the new album, Love. Larry said sadly that maybe we’d pretty much gotten what we were ever going to get from our discussions of The Beatles. I reminded him that we’d been talking about them, long and short, nearly every week since 1994.
“Don’t put that in your blog,” he said. “That sounds crazy.”
But when I mentioned career arcs, he got enthused again and said The Beatles’ music would last forever, like Mozart’s, because their arc included something for everyone, including the very young, who were instructed by the music itself in how to appreciate the more challenging music. He himself always came back to find something new that was there all along, but of course the new was in him.
Also, he said, the Beatles didn’t use their growing mastery of technique to make music that was merely ahead of its time. There was only a song or two that anticipated the late-‘70s or even early-‘80s stuff. No, The Beatles made “humanity music,” he said, while songs like “rockit,” by Herbie Hancock , from the early days of MTV, were dead.
Personally, there are many things I learned from listening to The Beatles for six years straight while at a stultifying corporate job. One of them was, I should probably go get a job that didn’t make employees so miserable that even a manager stole food from the cafeteria as recompense for all he suffered. Another thing was the power of revision (bootlegged early versions of “Get Back,” while meant as satire, would not get played now). Yet another was the “polyphony” in their music—an odd individual-collective voice that I equate with Faulkner’s “village stories” (told by a collective “we”) or with Madame Bovary’s sly first-person plural narrator, which opens the novel then drops out of sight.
Above all, I saw in their arc a daring, and a joy in that daring, that’s not often evident in the arts, let alone in other kinds of life’s work. When they felt trapped in the bubble-gum identity they’d worked so hard to achieve, they began to work against their own audience to make something new. Compare the face of the flat-topped young square in the checked sports coat in the audience at Shea, who’s so enjoying “Help,” with John’s face in the last seconds of the song . (Elsewhere in that concert John babbles gibberish and raises his arms to heaven; his mates say they feared he was losing his mind that night.)
It was a hint of what was to come, of course. “Twist and Shout” and the other fun, light songs are sealed up, unaware, compared with the opening-outwards that starts to happen in Rubber Soul, where even the picture of them on the album cover looks as if it’s beginning to melt. (“Ah, we’re talking serious music now,” Paul says in the anthology after a discussion of Stockhausen, Leary, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead.) Yet they were able to modulate their power, even near the end, to be gentle and humorous, too:
I want to tell her that I love her a lot
But I gotta get a bellyful of wine
Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl
Some day I'm going to make her mine, oh yeah,
Some day I'm going to make her mine.
Many artists’ careers are cut short, and others’ arcs don’t mean much. I know the trouble I’m about to start here, but the Stones…well, I like the Stones. Love the Stones. “Paint It Black” gives me chills, and I teach “Sympathy for the Devil” along with Nathaniel Hawthorne. I’ll even throw the title of “World’s Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Band” to the Stones, if you’ll admit that the Beatles are just a different thing altogether.
The film anthology, which played on network TV about 10 years ago, is like a good nonfiction novel in the way it portrays that arc I’m describing. We get a polyphony of voices describing the same events, and a good sense of individuals, of a group that’s charmingly domestic, and of a wider society, all at once. The narrative about this phenomenon called The Beatles has legs; the story feels transcendent.
The opening of each segment in the series suggests this. The intro is always the same shot of The Beatles logo on Ringo’s drum kit, then the camera pulls back, as their music fades in the screaming of fans, and very quickly they’re a tiny band in a huge empty space, virtually crushed by their own iconic logo. It’s a good visual metaphor, self-consciously styled, I suspect, on the final shot of the Shea concert linked above, and spooky as hell to boot. It’s like looking at the futility—yet unspeakable nobility—of making art at all.
Those who help you see are a mixed blessing. They’re usually at a distance, in time or space, and we know them only through their work. (Maybe it’s just as well. The shaped art is not the same as the people who made it.) They connect us with something bigger than ourselves, even as they make us realize we’ll never find the same intensity chatting with the guy next to us at the softball game.
My image of the true artist is that of a great friend on the fantail of a departing ship, waving goodbye. The friend’s work has encouraged you to see clearly and feel deeply, but it’s also a warning that you’ll be somewhat alone in this joyful labor, as he or she has had the courage to demonstrate all along.
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