Walter

When I was a teenager, most of my friends were between two and ten years older than myself. This was largely due to two things: that I played music in bars since age fifteen and that in a small town you cling to people with common interests despite age differences.

I met Walt Sheffield when he was working at Liverpool Records, where you could find cool imports and other good music that would never have found its way to Dothan, Alabama otherwise. I was 15 and Walt was 25. I was friends with some people he was friends with, etc. Over the next 3-4 years, long after Walt left the record store, we ran into each other a lot around town and got to know each other fairly well.

I had a habit in those days of going out for walks at the crack of dawn, sometimes clear to the other side of town and back. I don’t really know why I did it. It was meditative. It helped me sort through the myriad crazy things rattling around in my teenage brain. I sometimes came across Walt at these times, in the process of a similar exercise. I came to learn that he walked the same route every morning, and that he kept a list of things he observed along the route and how they changed over time. This was part of his writing process.

Walt was working on a novel, and all I knew of it at the time was that it involved a teenage boy and there was something about the impact that rock and roll had on this boy’s life. I always suspected that Walt was mostly interested in me as a kind of research project for this character. After all, I was a teenager in a rock band. His novel was never published. As far as I know nothing he wrote was ever published.

I knew then that I also wanted to be a writer. In fact, everything I knew about Walt was something I also aspired to be. He played in bands when he was in college at the University of Georgia, and he had met members of REM. He had studied philosophy, which was also an interest of mine. Even Walt’s folksy mannerisms became elements of the kind of persona that I was then developing for myself. In short, he was my role model. Never mind that he always had rather menial jobs like waiting tables or managing the produce section of a ghetto grocery store. He was smart, and he was funny, and he lived for the sake of art. And that was what I wanted to do too.

By the time I was 17, Walt was living with a couple of guys that I also knew. One was Tommy Sorrells, who a few years before had been one of my first guitar teachers. I used to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and go hang out at their place, where we would play guitars and talk about music and writing and philosophy until the wee hours of the morning. Walt was the first person to introduce me to bands like Sonic Youth and the Replacements, who became so important to me in my own musical journey. I remember specific things he told me about writers like Walt Whitman and William S. Burroughs. I remember talking about existentialism and the beats and the early days of punk and feeling like I had been there because Walt just knew so much about everything that interested me.

After a few years, I lost contact with all those guys. But I recently was reunited with Tommy through Facebook, and I found that he ran an open mic in Tuscaloosa on Monday nights. So while I was nearby for the holidays, I made plans to drop in. We had a great time together playing music until nearly sun up just like we used to do almost 20 years ago when I last saw him. I asked him if he knew what Walt was doing these days, and he told me that Walt died in 2003 of throat cancer.

I remember walking through the mall record store with Walt once. He pointed to a poster of Michael Bolton and said, “You know–if I hadn’t met certain people in my life, and maybe if I’d never been to New York City, my hair would probably look like that now.” And I think if I had never met Walt Sheffield, my life wouldn’t look much the way it looks like now either.

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Seminary Thoughts

Thinking about God today, particularly because I was walking by the seminary. I wonder if priests wrestle with their feelings about God more than lay people. It’s a sweeping generalization, but I think lay people tend to take their feelings about God for granted—be it belief, non-belief, or agnosticism—unless they’re in a state of crisis. And then you have people—the poor, the chronically ill—who are more or less always in a state of crisis or for whom one crisis begets another. And those people may be rather set in their ways about God also. Some people find hope or optimism through God; I tend to think that the hope itself is some aspect of God.

I’m interested in the recent backlash against mythical thinking among certain scientists and philosophers—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, etc. A kind of mythical thinking is key to the kind of literature that I’m trying to write, and it’s key to the way I tend to look at the world. Not that I believe the “magical” metaphysical implications of it, but the language of myth and religious metaphor helps me to understand my feelings about certain things. Perhaps I’m comfortable with that language because I come from the South.

Allegedly, my uncle John had the following conversation with a street urchin when he came to New York in college to study at the seminary for a semester. I think he might have made it up.

– Hey, where are you going?

– I’m going to the seminary.

– Why you wanna be around all those dead people?

Being an End Table

I guess I’m feeling philosophical today. I’m not getting anything done on my novel (although I think I did add a sentence or two), but I’m finding myself lost in a lot of rather abstract thoughts. Just now, I was playing a mahjong game and thinking about what it means to be a “good person.” I’ve always found this concept rather suspicious.

First, it implies that there is some essence or purpose to being a person, and if you fail at that purpose, you fail at being a person. I’m not sure that’s possible. If you’re a person, that’s just a natural, indisputable fact. I’m not sure it’s all that meaningful to say that someone is a “good” one or a “bad” one.

Similarly, it sounds like a skill that can be acquired, along the lines of being a good golfer or a good mathematician. I suppose this could be a helpful metaphor if one is in the process of “trying to be a better person,” but one might just as likely throw one’s hands in the air and say, “I guess I’m just not that good at this ‘being a person’ thing. Maybe I should try to be something else, like maybe an end table.”

A Note on Post-Modernity

Man is increasingly aware of his part in some greater drama. Not a new idea, certainly, but in an age where reality is manufactured for television audiences as easily as bread is baked, individuals are hyper-conscious of the traits that make up their public persona. And for some, there’s a greater desire than ever to be someone else.

Shannon Johnson told me in ninth grade, entering high school, that this was our moment to define whatever we wanted to be. I wonder what made him so wise at that age. I ran into him a couple of years ago when I was passing through Dothan, and he seemed no different than in high school.

Another image that keeps popping up when I think about this idea of “identity” is William S. Burroughs, curled up in some Greenwich Village hovel with a frightened and naked fifteen-year old boy, telling him how to relax, that he doesn’t have to be himself, he can be anybody at that moment.

Artist and Artisan, part 2

I sent parts of Wednesday’s entry out to a few friends to spark discussion, and I got some interesting responses. Mainly, that not every artist is a good artist, which is an obvious point, and so artistry vs. artisanship is a gradient that ebbs and flows over an individual’s career. That’s certainly true.

The tension I felt as I listened to this conversation while waiting to see Lionel Richie was that, if I volunteered the information that I was a “musician” or “songwriter” or even a fan of “music,” I still didn’t think that I would in any way have much in common with these people. Or that I would be able to communicate the relationship of what I find interesting about music with what they find interesting about music. Or the difference between what I find interesting about music and what I am passionate about with regard to music. And I thought that was strange as well as kind of frustrating.

We all agreed, basically, that these “mainstream music fans” that exist out in the world are baffling.

I’m an Artist and You’re an Artisan

I had an odd adventure yesterday that caused me to reflect on many things. My mother’s birthday is in a couple of weeks, and I happened to hear that Lionel Richie was signing copies of his new greatest hits CD. It’s just the kind of somewhat cheesy pop that seems to appeal to her, and a signed copy of the CD would be a funny gift. So I went down to 66th Street and stood in line in the freezing cold for two hours to get it, and ultimately I was successful in my mission.

While I was standing in line, I was surrounded by four men who were obviously real Lionel Richie fans. They started talking about the Commodores in relation to various funk groups and Motown acts, and at first I thought they were specialists with an interest in American R&B of the 60s and 70s. But I soon realized that they were all rabid followers of virtually any kind of mainstream music, and they had detailed knowledge about all kinds of “artists” from P Diddy to Led Zeppelin to Prince to Kiss to Jay Z. It was really remarkable to follow their ecstatic discussion, but I barely said a word the whole time. Honestly, I didn’t know a lot of the people they talked about. When they hit on something I could agree with, I would pipe in an acknowledgement, but mostly I just nodded my head and kept my opinions to myself.

It made me think about the interesting juxtaposition of “artist” and “artisan” that exists in popular music, the blurring of which I suspect is a foregone conclusion of market capitalism. This is a dichotomy that I think about frequently, and I’ve imbedded some of my more cynical thoughts on the idea into one of my books. It can be summarized as follows.

The artisan creates things with intended use. This sometimes involves impressive skill and creativity, and these four men that I met were keen observers of artisanship in the music industry, which can include any or all aspects of composition, arrangement, production, mastery of an instrument, dancing ability, packaging, and marketing. There may be other elements that come into play, but off the top of my head, I think this sums up 99% of the industry.

Artists, on the other hand, create things that are likely to have no use. They create because they are compelled to create, and they don’t have anything to gain from it. Both the industry and consumers of the industry frequently and willingly blur the lines between these two. Many become impassioned about artisanship, and dupe themselves into believing its art. To make things more confusing, once in a great while, a true artist stumbles into the music industry and is able to combine the two roles effectively. Also, like most apparent dichotomies, I don’t know that there’s always a hard line that you can draw between the two.

However, an inevitable cycle of entropy occurs in the music industry as a direct result of market capitalism. Artists, who don’t necessarily have the polish to gain mass appeal, are increasingly ignored by the industry in favor of safer investments. More and more the artisan skills that require the most energetic study — composition, arrangement and musicianship — are also ignored in favor packaging and production, which are easier. That’s why every generation says they don’t write songs like they used to. They really don’t. And those that do can’t get a break because the industry doesn’t need them to sell records.

What would be a more ideal situation? I don’t know. I’ve been trying to turn it around theoretically in my mind. As things stand, there are already an overwhelming number of potential artists. So a big part of the puzzle is how to separate the best interests of the corporate music industry from the best interests of the artists and also the best interests of the potential music audience. If you remove the idea of profit, how do you decide who gets to make “being an artist” their life’s work and get them the materials and freedom they need to do their work?

Maybe the best we can hope for is that good artists somehow latch onto a strong underground current just below the radar of the industry, and at times we seem to have that. But in many ways an alternative or “indie” market is a specialized microcosm of the industry as a whole and shares many of the problems.

Even in my most extreme fantasy of a regenerated, totally socialized entertainment system, it’s hard to imagine exactly how that would improve the end result, unless of course, I alone am allowed to be the supreme dictator of taste. It’s really not so much a matter of changing the public’s taste as it’s a matter of calling things what they really are.