From my old blog, February, 2007: On Selling Out, Sort Of

My experience as an artist is more or less divided into two spheres: on the one hand, I’m a musician, a practice which has always involved public performance and the explicit realization of a community. On the other hand, I’m a poet, a practice which has been, until the last year or so, an almost entirely private practice, one I shared with a handful of people, whose publication was limited to a couple of poems published several years ago (including, as it happens, the same poem twice). By and large, the two spheres remain separate, though, decreasingly so. I have tried to model my life as a poet on what I learned in the Rochester, NY and DC punk scenes from roughly 1989-2000: that artists, regardless of their art, carry with them a responsibility to the world in which they create and exhibit their work (it is, after all, created and exhibited in the same world).

Photo by Jim Saah

The Jim Saah photograph above is from a Jawbox show at the Black Cat in DC; I think the year was 1994 and it might have even been the show advertised in the poster next to it. I have kept a print of the photograph on my refrigerator since that time to remind me of several things, chief among which has become the best-integrated art/politics scene in which I have been an active member. It was the reason I moved back to the area in 1991, and found it to be an invigorating and inspiring time and place to be as both writer and musician (I had, when I left Rochester, decided to give up music entirely, in favor of literature; thankfully my mind was changed nine months later when I joined Jawbox). There was a near-constant air of protest, of seeking out materials and economies that abandoned convention in favor of defiant humanism and concern for essentially leftist values. This took place mostly among bands and show-attendees, who were gathering anyway for music and new ideas. There were frequent benefit shows, protests, and a network of people around the world whose contact with each other depended on touring bands. The link was inherently political: we were doing our thing, not the mainstream thing. It worked, too.

By 1994, several of us (by which I mean bands) had signed to major labels, in hopes, variously, of reaching larger audiences, or at the very least, having more time and money with which to make records. I think Jawbox was more concerned with writing better songs than we were with fame. The jump to the majors allowed us to practice more, tour more, and record under better circumstances.

The ramifications were obvious enough then as now: we were selling out. For my part — I can’t speak for J., Bill, or Kim — I’ve always thought of it as *cashing in*, though there wasn’t really much cash and I’m not certain that the distinction even matters anymore. For what it’s worth, I didn’t feel like we were wrecking anything by signing to Atlantic; that is, the decision was ours, the consequences were ours, and it didn’t reflect on any other bands, labels, or fans. I was wrong.

The scene from which we’d come felt, in some circles, betrayed, and the mainstream rarely has the patience required for unconventional art. We were ignored by our label within nine months of our first release and completely pushed aside within a year. Our story is not at all unusual except perhaps for the degree to which we continued to practice a DIY-based method, regardless of being on a major label. We knew what we were getting ourselves into (most of the time). I don’t know that this recounting requires much elaboration at this late date so I’ll just say that if I was in that situation today, I’d probably handle it differently, though this remark is qualified by knowing that the circumstances that made Jawbox possible at all no longer exist for me.

Jawbox on Atlantic & TAG

In the end, I can’t say I regret our deal with Atlantic. Kim and Bill even bought our tapes back from the label and are planning to re-release both *For Your Own Special Sweetheart* and *Jawbox* online. The fact remains that we made our most challenging music under those conditions, and my experience in that band has positively served my consciousness as much as anything else I’ve done, before or since.

All This to Post a Link: Slow Movies

It’s a defense I rarely have the patience to make anymore, that of so-called slow movies, which are, of course, only slow relative to to current movie-pace conventions, whatever era’s taste might be represented in a given movie.

I think it’s worth noting, however, that slow movies are not necessarily long.1 When I first got into film, the chief examples of slow-movies were largely limited to European pictures from the 1970s. My personal choices for best-of-the-genre ((We could call it the Real-Time Domestic genre, allowing that “domestic” describes wherever the characters hang their hat(s), a location that might well be nowhere in particular. Other directors whose work fits or has fit into this genre are, off the top of my head, Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Margurite Duras, Robert Altman, Yvonne Rainer, Takeshi Kitano, Tsai-Ming Liang, Horikazu Kore-Eda. There are dozens of others from all parts of the world and the entire history of cinema.)) are probably still Wim Wender’s *Kings of the Road* (1976, 175 minutes) and Chantal Akerman’s *Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles* (1975, 201 minutes), both long movies by any measure.

Kings of the Road
Hanns Zischler in Kings of the Road, 1976.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman..., 1975.

Suffice it to say that from one vantage, these are movies in which nothing happens, yet from another point of view they are movies in which the characters’ stakes are simply measured in smaller increments than mainstream fare.

Sometimes, as in the case of Kelly Reichardt’s middle pictures, we only learn what we need to about the characters to get us effectively through the scenario at hand: a kind of awkward effort to reconnect in *Old Joy* and a desperate couple of days (and the inevitably of reliance on other people) in *Wendy and Lucy*. Movies of such provision are frequently short by industry standards, preferring to dwell on their scenes rather than hustle viewers on to the next one.

Wendy and Lucy
Michelle Williams and Lucy in Wendy and Lucy, 2008.

Another current filmmaker who eschews contemporary pacing is Andrew Bujalski, whose directorial work2 takes a privileged look at a largely privileged class of young adults, hipsters, and students. It is not Mr. Bujalski’s aim to make boring movies but he does aim to make movies about boring people, or people made boring by their selfishness and self-consciousness.

Tilly and Maggie Hatcher in Beeswax, 2009.

For my part, I determined several years ago that:

  • Falling asleep during a movie doesn’t mean I’m bored. It means I’m tired. I don’t sleep when I’m bored, I smoke cigarettes (though I also smoke when I’m not bored). I would rather doze off during a movie that tries something new than remain alert throughout a movie that doesn’t.
  • By and large, I enjoy movies that challenge accepted practice on any level more than those that don’t.
  • Exceptional movies are exceptional for all kinds of reasons. Unexeceptional movies are usually unexceptional for the same reasons.
  • I prefer filmmakers that presume their audience to be a community, if only by virtue of the fact that all of its members will have seen their film(s).

All of which is to say that I don’t care if mainstream audiences ever like slow movies. My heart goes out to critics and reviewers who still feel the need to defend these films: Films – In Defense of Slow and Boring – (Via Alex Ross.)

  1. Kelly Reichardt’s work, known for its real-time event structure, breaks down as follows: *River of Grass, 1994*, 100 minutes; *Old Joy*, 2006, 76 minutes; *Wendy and Lucy*, 2008, 80 minutes; *Meek’s Cutoff*, 2010, 104 minutes. The oldest and most recent of Ms. Reichardt’s films, which I have not yet seen, are the two that are of conventional feature-length. I’ll guess that compared to the middle two, both of which are favorites of mine, *River of Grass* and *Meek’s Cutoff* unfold like Jason Bourne or Harry Potter pictures, and therefore require the extended duration. If I’m wrong about this, no matter.

  2. *Funny Ha Ha*, 2002, 85 minutes; *Mutual Appreciation*, 2005, 109 minutes; *Beeswax*, 2009, 100 minutes.

Energies: Taking it from the Top

Before cable television and VCRs, to say nothing of the internet, music was, at the very least, a primary source of entertainment. In my home, the radio was frequently on, playing NPR or Top 40 AM radio, or else there were records being played. 1

From my father’s record collection, I heard jazz: Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis (especially the latter’s Gil Evans sessions) were handy in our house.

Miles Davis, “Summertime,” Porgy and Bess, 1958.

My mother brought singer-songwriters and popular music to the scene: Arlo Guthrie, Melanie, Ray Charles, John Denver, James Taylor, and Jim Croce were favorites of mine when I was young. 2

James Taylor, “Fire and Rain,” Sweet Baby James, 1970.

It is impossible for me to diminish the importance of my mother’s listening habits, which consisted, at times, of bringing home a 45rpm single of a song she liked and playing it, more or less, over and over again. Which is to say I grew up in an environment which supported broad listening as well as the cultivation of favorite songs. Though the music from my father’s collection has perhaps proven to be more enduring for me as a musician, my mother taught me how to listen to music.

  1. Growing up in Rochester, NY provided unique listening opportunities: the Eastman School of Music and the musicians in its orbit brought consistent classical and jazz performances, as well as a variety of dance and dance-related performances, sometimes in conventional halls and auditoriums, sometimes in public parks, sometimes on visits to schools. I grew up in an environment that not only embraced music as a cultural, social, and/or popular phenomenon but also from which I came to understand it as a thing people attended and attend to, a thing people do.

  2. John Denver’s “Black Box,” an irritant in adult life, still lingers in the back of my head as a piece that frightened me but which I could not resist; Melanie’s “Lay Down” paved the way, no doubt, for my ongoing alliance with fervor. Such examples are among the countless shadowy presences in my crowded music-memory.

Energies (Craft)

To reiterate: the problem is not  generating the energy but rather managing it. Taking a moment from a drum-centric view, I think it’s worth considering how energy is presented in songs which handle it more or less the same way, though to different ends.

In the case of early Hardcore, for example, there are two conditions under which the energy is maintained. First, the tempos are unusually fast. Second, the songs in this style generally contain all the same elements as conventional popular songs, they just occur more rapidly. So there are verses, choruses, bridges, solos, or codas, all occurring in the space of under two minutes instead of the usual three or four.


Minor Threat, “Out of Step,” Out of Step, 1983.

The aim of the accelerated tempos is clear: manage the energy by forcing a burst of it and nothing else. A limitation to the style is that each song must be short. The aggression and compression makes longer songs unthinkable.

A variation on this style appears in a certain vein of popular folk-derived music (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Mark Kozolek, et al.) . In these songs, pace and duration are determined by the song’s lyrics and the singer’s style; that is, the manner in which s/he sings and how long it takes to sing everything. Gillian Welch’s “Dream a Highway” is an example of this practice, as is her “My Morphine,” whose yodel might be the slowest such call ever recorded. It is aloof, nostalgic, self-absorbed, slow, sweet, remorseful.


Gillian Welch, “I Dream a Highway,” Time (The Revelator), 2001.


Gillian Welch, “My Morphine,” Hell among the Yearlings, 1998.

Both the folk-derived mode and that of Hardcore, however much they swing to extremes of tempo and duration, still stay close to the form, if not the structure of conventional songs. I suspect this is due, in large part, to their reliance on singers. In the above cases, the vocals and music reflect each other mutually: the first voice can’t keep up (or thinks he can’t), the second dreams at her own pace, the third sings from the depths of a dope habit. The music is frantic, contemplative, and stoned, respectively.

In any case, I think this mutual reflection is a sign of the quality of songwriting — the high level of craft — at work here. Each of these songs continues to resonate with its fans, even after many years and with no obvious distinction from its peers. 1

Most of the time, if someone in a conversation about music brings the term “craft” to bear, they’re talking about singers and popular music. I suspect further that what they’re responding to is the fact that they are moved in some notable way by the music in question even though they know precisely where the tune is headed. This notion of craft, then, describes to me the effectiveness of a song’s distribution of energy according to its conventions: if the song does precisely what we expect in an unexpected way, we praise its craft.

I contend that craft is defined by its unique relevance to an established practice. Once one abandons the parameters of a given practice, one must establish, from the outset, the parameters of the new practice. These parameters will result in a new definition of craft.

  1. e.g. most Hardcore fans like several bands in their preferred genre, which all sound identical to the uninitiated ear — one has to learn to hear it; the same is true for slow, long, Americana or roots music: get hip or get lost, which is further true, upon reflection, of most things worth knowing. But I digress…