Divine Ambiguity. Or, Savaging the Images.

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Ann Savage in Detour – part of the new DVD cover by Jennifer Dionisio

I spent yesterday morning pouring over a couple of things I received from members of my cadre of guiding influences. Tony Levin’s Images From Life on the Road, his book of photography, was not so much a disappointment as a prefigured irrelevancy. Ho hum. Somehow Tony, a man blessed with the opportunity of a wonderfully global and relevant rock-n-roll life, manages to capture, in photographic terms at least, virtually none of it. Nick Cave, on the other hand, via his latest Red Hand Files communication presents, in a handful of paragraphs, the categorical opposite of irrelevance, which is to say, a bestowing of compelling and revealing insight.

I’ve no hard feelings against Tony’s effort. If you’ve paid any attention to the man’s blog, which in fact is simply a repository of his zillions of tour photographs, too many of which involve rote shots of the audience from the perspective of the stage (is there anything duller?), then you know pretty much what to expect. I did, at least. Sure, there are a handful of interesting (but far from compelling) shots of his band members and a picture or two of a landscape or space-scape that stick with you a bit but in all, Tony’s photographs seem as workaday, serviceable and scrapbookish as perhaps his playing is. If playing a bass can be scrapbookish at all. But the reader will get my drift. In other words, if Tony gets inspired or moved or struck by anything beyond a certain casual acquaintance with it, well, his photographs don’t reveal that. It’s as if, again analogous to his bass playing, his technical ability with a camera doesn’t allow for compelling mistakes nor does it communicate a creative vision outside the utilitarian. His shots of almost everyone are blasé but not blasé enough, if you know what I mean, if that were to be regarded as his talent.

Sure, the road is a bore for most self-possessed musicians. The life of a rock star… isn’t. I get it. Which is to say, that in itself could be an interesting perspective. In fact there’s a shot of Bryan Ferry and Robert Fripp in proximity to each other outside a tour bus – they’re standing in the sunshine and Fripp is eating a bunch of grapes – that seems to describe both a quality of washed out, unbendable ennui and pedestrian dullness alongside the weird, striking out-of-place-ness that some artist-craftsmen can’t help but embody – what HWG describes as the nature of existence alongside the waiting-to-present-the-special-version-of-oneself that makes for a compelling image of irony or paradox or, I don’t know, it works as art-craft. But just barely.

And Tony’s a really nice guy, you can tell by reading about him, listening to him talk and watching him. If he were otherwise louche, transgressive, subversive, volatile, unhinged, mystical or a charismatic asshole – namely, all the things that so often seemed to fuel the rock mythos besides talent – or at least found any of that interesting, he’s keeping it to himself. Not that rock and roll is only that stuff. But as my brother (the HWG) says, “It’s truly better to be a sloppy hack in most anything than a technical ace.” So that if these images were either messier or more strikingly accomplished then we’d perhaps have something more than a hobby. Recall that my definition of a hobby is a passion sans talent. It seems there’s a part of us that must dabble in things and bang our heads against marginal skills that we never seek to master and have no hope of every realizing as talents. Talent is what you’re born with. A strength is talent enhanced by deliberate practice and mastery is the far horizon that compels us ever onwards within our VAPM. Professionalism comes naturally within this scenario: when we professionalize our strength we are doing our best to deliver our best to the world-of-action. Why keep it to yourself?

It sounds simple enough except when we confuse earnestness and passion with a calling and when we attempt to professionalize a hobby and transform it into a vocation. As I’ve always said, earnestness and passion are no substitute for talent. Earnestness and passion are rather what hobbyists thrive upon. A person’s talent more often conflicts with both. I’m banging away at this journal entry, for example, and later I’ll bang away at the manuscript and I’ve a marginal talent for both and neither are a pleasure. I experience a sense of conflict, that is, when I engage my talents because they conflict, somehow, psychologically at least, with the sense of enjoyment I experience when engaging my hobbies. Hobbies can be a means to express great skill and that’s part of the fun, too, just being good at something. But your talent draws more out of you. It requires more of you. It requires all of you. I would argue that in personal mythological terms it is you. Hence, it’s all the cosmos really requires of you. So do it.

Which brings us to Nick Cave, yet again, whom I would characterize as an artist-craftsman who resides comfortably (or productively uncomfortably) within the messy psychology of the art-craft metropolis and the wild woods of creative vision. He knows when to upset the apple cart of his own preconceptions. Preconceptions? Yes, we all have them and perhaps most perniciously on behalf of ourselves. We’re convinced that we’re this or that. We do this but we’d never do that. Which is fine in terms of cultivating a sense of self possession and confidence and purpose – how else to move forward with being who you are? But that thing that we refuse to consider? It’s probably a key to unlocking a door that needs opening. Sometimes you have to kick it open and sometimes you don’t. Meanwhile, let it work on you. You’re feeling stuck, for instance, and wondering what in hell to do. Consider that which you’re convinced is not the thing. I’d never work there, I’d never take that job, I’d never resort to that. Why not?

Nick Cave. I keep coming back to the guy because, whether you appreciate his music or not, he is authentic in personal mythological terms. And his work, as it stands, continues to be vital because of it. I’m convinced that often in spite of ourselves we are mythic creatures, keen to thrive upon and respond to in Earthly and unearthly (super natural [sic]) terms to our mythos, personal and cultural. Which includes our sense of awe, a cosmology that supports that awe, a sociology that describes our ethics and a pedagogical psychology that guides us through. It is, I believe, an inescapable intuition and phenomenon of our humanity. And if we’re not alone, if there are worlds that support intelligent life, you will find mythos there, too. Will it be alien? I like to believe, if only just for fun and to inspire sci-fi novels that it may just be the only thing that we may share with aliens. Thereby rendering them less alien.

But to my point. I’d never expected a response from Nick regarding my question posed many months ago – God knows how many questions he receives via The Red Hand Files. Nevertheless, “What is your relationship to mythology?” stuck with me. And it turns out that by way of answering somebody else’s question, he did very well to answer mine. I’m going to transcribe this in full because if I merely post a link nobody will click it and may the gods of copyright enforcement slay me:

“Dear Ellery, You are right to say that there is some ambiguity to my relationship with Christ, and I don’t consider myself a Christian — at least ‘most of time’, as Bob Dylan would say. Spiritual matters for me are always evolving, never static, and are energized by their mystery and uncertainty and attendant struggle.

However, this much I think is true. I believe that there is a unifying essentialness within all people — the spirit, the soul — and that this spirit is innocent and good and connected to the divine. Over that essential spirit of goodness we place, throughout our lives, mechanisms, strategies, agendas, defenses, transgressions — layers of behavior that collect and deepen, like Philip Larkin’s ‘coastal shelf’, and engulf that core of goodness, separating us from the divine nature of the world. Although I believe this, I find it extremely difficult to actually connect deeply with these invisible notions — the spirit and the soul.

Personally, I need to see the world through metaphors, symbols and images. It is through images that I can engage meaningfully with the world. The personalization of this invisible notion of the spirit is necessary for me to fully understand it. I find that using the word ‘Christ’ as the actualizing symbol of the eternal goodness in all things extremely useful. The Christ in everything makes sense to me — I can see it — and helps me to act more compassionately within the world.

It feels to me that sometimes we practice a kind of conditional compassion and reserve our goodwill to those we think deserve it. To practice a form of universal compassion, I find it of considerable value to remember that our love is a lifeline thrown to that pure essentialness, the Christ deep within us, entombed, suffering and yearning for our assistance.

Acts of compassion, kindness and forgiveness can ignite this spirit of goodness within each other and within the world. Small acts of love reach down and bring succor to that animated spirit, the beseeching Christ, so in need of rehabilitation. Love, Nick.”

https://www.theredhandfiles.com/i-have-been-reading-tolstoys-the-gospel-in-brief-and-wondered-if-you-had-read-this-short-book-what-does-christ-mean-to-you-i-hear-his-name-mentioned-in-many-of-your-songs-but-thematically-the/

The devoted reader will recall my appreciation for context and this, upon reflection, forces me to evaluate the Tony Levin book again and perhaps cut him some slack. Did he ever presume to be publishing artcraft? No. Images From a Life on the Road is the title of the book, after all, and he does not wax eloquently or ineloquently upon any of it. It’s pretty much just a scrapbook and so be it. He never claims to provide a window into life on the road. He doesn’t aspire to insight. He’s not experimenting with the images of life on the road with an aspiration to discern or distill or extract or analyze. He merely presents and seems content to leave anything else up to us. If I argued that out of the zillions of photographs he probably sifted through and spent untold hours curating for the book he might have discarded some and included others more compelling, well, he never said any of them were compelling.

Nevertheless, I would ask Tony why he takes photographs if it’s not an experiment and an adventure and a form of seeking but then he’s not required to answer me. I would  argue that the first thing I look for in a photographer’s work is awareness of a perspective beyond that of standing there with the camera in front of your face and clicking away, which is what the rest of us do. That is, do you understand that you can’t just click what you see out of your own everyday pedestrian perspective, standing there between five and six feet or so above the ground and at this or that distance from whomever and whatever you are shooting? Lower yourself. Climb a ladder. Back away. Get closer. Zoom in. Observe what’s in the frame – everything in the frame. Compose the shot. Edge to edge. I’m not certain that Tony is doing this except when he’s photographing objects and landscapes, skyscapes and space-scapes. People? He seems interested in people, in photographing them, but rarely does he seem interested in drilling into who they are and what’s going on with them. Perhaps he’s just too painfully respectful of people’s privacy? A photograph can be revealing, perhaps too much so for some folks. But if it’s a book of your work, I’d prefer to look at stuff that reveals. So be it. As far as the bonus CD that arrived with the book, Tony’s favorites amongst his own work, let’s just say that, well, some folks no matter their degree of technical ability are contributors and not themselves artcrafters.

“Feb 8th update: The first printing of the book has sold out (much quicker than we expected.) A second printing is on the way (unchanged except for a couple of typos fixed) and should arrive later in February. So we are again at “Pre-Order”, and expect to ship by March 1st.”

https://tonylevin.com/photobook.php

Okay Tony, regardless of my opinion of it, congratulations on selling out this run of books. And the typos? I get it, brutha.

Criticism. “To be a critic,” suggested Bob Fripp, “is to have no concern for your soul.” Well, I mostly agree except when we’re discussing already well off and well established artcrafters with the psychological and material wherewithal to endure such analysis. And we eventually require honesty and straightforward professional evaluation for just about everything – in the sense that looking the other way usually doesn’t do a thing any good in the end anyway. My work is no exception despite my cosmic terror at the idea, perhaps an inevitability of receiving bad reviews. I’ve often said, after all, that the sign of true success is to have acquired critics, the more well regarded and passionately averse to your work, the better. For it only brings fuel to the fire of public acceptance. Not everyone will like what you do. Perhaps most folks won’t. But kid gloves? Everything has its place.

Meanwhile, it turns out that February 2021 is the third best sales month ever for TC1! Go Time Crime! Who could have expected it? And I received from L.S. her notes on a string of embarrassing typos within TC1 – thank you! – which has inspired me to gather up my own corrections and schedule a revision with R.V. Within the next three weeks or so, then, I’ll republish the thing in its Third State, yay! And of course I’ll immediately find something else that needs fixing or improving or otherwise tweaking. I’m not against a lifetime of revisions – errors are errors and what writing can’t be improved upon? – but frankly, following this third “printing” I’m going to devote myself entirely to TC2, anything that bugs me about TC1 will have to wait. And I’m also sensitive from the fan’s standpoint (because I’m a fan of things, too) to idea of leaving well enough alone and living with the imperfections because somehow, so often, those very imperfections become part of the substance of the thing. Too many fixes and you’ve got a second edition and who needs a second edition of a novel?

The most extreme example that I’ve run across where an imperfection that borders on scandalous is allowed to stand long enough that it transforms into part of the essence and appeal of the creation is the famous and recently restored 1945 film Detour (complete with new promotional artwork as displayed on Criterion) directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage.

https://www.criterion.com/films/29614-detour

I’m determined to see this film (which clocks in at a mere 68 minutes) because it supposedly stands as the definitive film noir classic, perhaps the first fully realized example of the type. That, and the story of the budget constraints being such that not only did the director use his own car (now an icon of the film in its own right) but, crazy as it seems, in order to present the sense of the protagonist’s journey east to west – right to left, per say – from NYC to L.A. more convincingly on the screen, the negative was reversed. With the kooky result that the car is on the wrong side of the road and likewise the driver sits, U.K. style, on the right. Insane that they would resort to this! And that anyone would consider it an improvement.

Where does that leave us? Perhaps hanging. But I’ve nothing else to say about it, mostly because I’ve got to get some TC2 editing done before a closing shift at the home improvement so, until next time… thanks for reading!