Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What to Do, What to Do?

A friend and I have often half-joked that the last person who can tell what's happening in a piece of art is the artist. Right now, I'm facing the question of what to do with the memoir-like liner notes for Carla Bley's new Appearing Nightly, her version of a big band album. Typically, such notes make writing about an album easier, but what if she's not being entirely truthful? I saw her twice in Toronto a year apart, and she played one piece that she hadn't recorded at the time - I think she introduced it as "Battleship" - and when she played it the second time at an outdoor venue on the shores of Lake Ontario, she announced that she composed the piece the night before after seeing a nearby ship. Since that sort of sly humor and riffs on genres and tropes are central to her work, I didn't - and still don't - find her lie anything but entertaining, and it played on the notion that somehow something said in introduction to a piece helps us get any closer to it. Even if she were telling the truth, would the idea that a song was inspired by a ship tell us anything about the song?

In Bley's case, she makes her art - and by extension, her career - sound like a prolonged adventure in stumbling from right move to right move through luck and intuition. There's probably as much truth in that as there is for most musicians, but there's also a defense mechanism in that similar to one I encountered when I interviewed her with a friend who introduced me to her work. After 10 or so minutes, she decided she was more interested in him and interviewed him about his research - he is a scientist - instead of talking about herself. I asked the question in the recent Dylan piece that I wrote: Who really wants to explain themselves? At least in her case, she deals with the issue entertainingly ... which Dylan still does too in his post-modern way. Can any of it be taken seriously? Is there anything real in her discussion of her days as a bad lounge pianist? Probably. Enough to hang a review on? Maybe, but there are better ways to go.

By the way, I'm dabbling in Jonathan Cott's anthology of Dylan interviews, and what's interesting is how Dylan's mechanisms of avoidance changed over the years, but also how some voices have hung on. He seems more friendly and open when he talks to Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner after the release of John Wesley Harding, but he deflects Wenner's questions at every turn, seeming "Aw shucks" about everything, as if the world's a crazy place that's confusing for a country boy. A variation on that voice turns up in Chronicles.

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