Commentaries - January 2009
Jon Pareles has gotten some great quotes from Bruce Springsteen for his big piece in today's New York Times. Pareles knows it's big, that his claim is big. The piece is called "The Rock Laureate."
I, for one, accept the claim (happily as well as logically).
Others have seen Springsteen in the Whitman/proletarian Guthrie/folk American tradition (the best writer about Bruce in this mode is David Wyatt in Out of the Sixties--and Greil Marcus gets it too), but I still can't help feeling as a fresh wind in my face the vague faux-rough visionary romanticism of Springsteen's spoken rhetoric. Below are two quotes from Pareles' essay. In the first, the phrase "eight years" obviously refers to the two terms of George Bush. The oracular ("swimming in the current of history") is flattened and made humble really really nicely by "your music is doing the same thing."
The second quote begins unpromisingly with yet another Where were you when Obama was elected? anecdote but then indulges gorgeously, I think, in the vaguest American pronoun referent - the it of liberationist folk spirit. This is the same "it" that Steinbeck uses clumsily at various points in--and at the end of--The Grapes of Wrath. But Henry Miller, when he really got going, used it well. Dreiser, too, in rare upbeat passages. And, at several crucial moments, William Carlos Williams. And early in Kerouac. And Ashbery in several poems about America, most movingly in "The One Thing That Can Save America" (ironic title--but the sentiment about "it" is true). And, in his hyperdemocratic WWII newspaper pieces, Ira Wolfert. And in times of crisis, Eric Severeid (he of Upper Midwest labor-populism), spoken on the air in the endless insistent sentence. And Whitman, often.
At its least interesting, all this takes us merely to a cheap, easy spot where, because of some momentary alliance, Kate Smith meets Woody Guthrie. At its best, though, it's the great provocative American cultural confluence.
"[E]ight years go by, and that’s where you find yourself. You’re in there, you’re swimming in the current of history and your music is doing the same thing.”
"[O]n election night it showed its face, for maybe, probably, one of the first times in my adult life,” he said. “I sat there on the couch, and my jaw dropped, and I went, ‘Oh my God, it exists.’ Not just dreaming it. It exists, it’s there, and if this much of it is there, the rest of it’s there. Let’s go get that. Let’s go get it. Just that is enough to keep you going for the rest of your life. All the songs you wrote are a little truer today than they were a month or two ago.”
Well, this is a circular and probably self-serving final statement. Of course the songs are "truer" now that you're on the inside--you're in and so you can sing them as part of the bona fide (but, alas, temporary) language of the nation. No, the songs being truer now than before is not what's remarkable about Bruce. What's remarkable is his strong antipoetic (and thus very poetic) sense of the big "it," and he enacts this sense out of two great talents simultaneously: first, a resistance to narrowing or clarifying it and an ability to flow fast with it and yet not infuriate listeners; second, his sense that new songs will come from the place where the rest of it is to be found. He's on a roll, no doubt. Listen for some of the rest of it in the new album.
Have you been following the financial troubles at MOCA? Combination of woes: the endowment has taken a big hit (as all endowments have) in the current recession; major mismanagement from the top; allegedly, boring curatorial choices ("Everyone i know just go to shop at the stores anyways. The shows have been either really good or really bad, but the store is always worth the trip and the hassle to park"); and, the presence already in LA of LACMA, which isn't supposed to cause overlap or redundancy, but perhaps does. The inner workings of this crisis are of course much more complex than I've just now conveyed. I recommend KCRW's "The Politics of Culture" (radio show that is also an audio podcast available on KCRW's web site and through iTunes), which hosted a fascinating discussion on the topic among several long-time LA art people.
Well, yesterday MOCA announced that 20% of the staff will be laid off. And they will cut other operating expenses. It will reduce expenses by $4.4M annually, but when I last understood the math here, I think they were $12M in the red annually even after a pledge of a major endowment gift by Eli Broad.
Here's the L. A. Times story on the lay-offs. One commentator snarks as follows: "Anyway, what I don't understand about the cuts is why they are aiming them at the marketing department. After all, they are the ones who actually put together the programs meant to lure people into the museum, and therefore bring in the money. What they going to do now? Have the prints assistant curator stand at Union Station with a clapboard [sandwich board] around their neck??"
From Stanley Fish's ridiculous, broad-brush dismissal of biographical writing (1999):
My criticism of biography does not hold for autobiography. It makes none of the claims made for biography and is therefore not subject to any of the criticisms. You cannot fault the author of an autobiography for failing to be objective, or for substituting his story for the story of his subject.
He is his subject, and his performance, complete with the quirks and blindnesses of his personality, is not a distraction or deviation from the story of his life but an extension of it. Autobiographers cannot lie because anything they say, however mendacious, is the truth about themselves, whether they know it or not. Autobiographers are authentic necessarily and without effort.
Biographers, on the other hand, can only be inauthentic, can only get it wrong, can only lie, can only substitute their own story for the story of their announced subject. (Biographers are all autobiographers, although the pretensions of their enterprise won't allow them to admit it or even see it.)
Biography, in short, is a bad game, and the wonder is that so many are playing it and that so many others are watching it and spending time that might be better spent on more edifying spectacles like politics and professional wrestling.