Sunday, December 26, 2010

With a Heart Like a Fist: The true beauty of anger

Art pimps passion.

For this I use the word pimp advisedly. (Generally I hate our cultural habit of neutralizing offensive words through overuse. Pimp is only one of the lessor offenses.) I use pimp in the sense of procurement through some form of hardship or abuse. In that sense some of our greatest art indeed comes from a kind of pimp transaction. Passion is a requirement for great art, certainly, and though misery may not be, it just seems to work better that way.
Exhibit A: Buffy Saint Marie. Buffy began as something of a folk prodigy, having established a successful career as a solo performer by her early twenties. This performance of "My Country 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying" is from Pete Seeger's short lived show from 1965, Rainbow Quest. (I describe the show briefly here.) Hear the tearful rage in her voice barely contained and the soul-freezing mourn in her eyes. Now, 46 years later the song still resonates: Today, Indians may have the tragic Americanization of Native Americans (note the irony of the title itself) policies behind them but still live in nation capable of naming its capital's football team "Redskins" among other offenses. Clearly, Thy people's work is not done.

James Baldwin famously wrote in his essay "Many Thousand Gone" (also "No More Auction Block's" original title) that through song Americans are "able to admire [the history of Black America] because protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it... [It is only in song] that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story... a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear."

Exhibit B: Uneasy truths couldn't wish for a better vehicle than Paul Robeson's voice. Robeson's genius and general prodigiousness are the stuff of legend. Not least for his passionate work in the cause of civil rights, a cause for which he'd suffer in both career and life. For this, his version of "No More Auction Block for Me" may be the most profound and poignant, if not most definitive, ever recorded. (The fact that most of us know the song at all, though, is a debt owed to Dylan.) The song's origins are mysterious. It's vintage is the nineteenth century and was composed by an unknown and almost certainly illiterate slave. (How a song of such of humble origins becomes canon has to do with its acceptance into church repertoire.) The song served as a kernel for a number of other popular folk and spiritual tunes including "Blowing in the Wind" and "We Shall Overcome." (A side note: The picture of the whipped slave featured in the video is described in a Harper's article from 1863. Learn more about "negro GORDON" here. The pic is also one of the top ten most requested photos in the National Archive.)
Back to the premise: Perhaps the words art and passion should be interchangeable. If extremes of heat and pressure produce the diamond then bloodless art making, however skilled, might barely warm the egg. Mediocrity may be the enemy but sometimes the only difference between mediocrity and the merely good is the degree of heart the artist chooses to leave out. Renowned marketing egghead Seth Godin suggests that the merely good rarely changes minds. It's like pimping hugs.
Passion always elevates. Godin says you could run a church exceptionally and still be an atheist. The product is less important than the process. If you're passionate about doing your best work, whatever it is, then the non-believer is as capable as the believer. I've my own theory: It takes more than just passion. It takes the right kind of passion. Misery will work, abuse, hardship, and general suffering, but it's not the experience itself so much as what it leaves behind: Anger.

Now, Godin also suggests that "anger only makes us smaller." That's true. It's toxic, and like most toxic substances when used carelessly, it can be dangerous. When I say anger I don't mean pissy frustration or blinding rage, but profound anger that makes us want to go to war; Not just for truth, justice, and the American Way but to war against the passionless: The assembly line vampire editions, the licensed remakes, the "rock and roll" cruises, the celebrity picture books, and all manner of cynical derivatives and mercenary hackism. The secret is to go to war for a new vision, even if that only means digging deeper into your own. Which is, ultimately, the best thing we can do.

Exhibit C: Odetta. This is an excerpt from the Scorsese-directed Bob Dylan interview doc "No Direction Home" (highly recommended, whatever your taste for Dylan). The performance is from 1959. Robeson took his pass at this song too, and though I haven't heard it, I can't imagine his version is even up to the standard of this one. Dylan admits a debt to Odetta and her's is a rage to be reckoned with: It rings harder than the hammers striking the rocks of the song. This is anger served on a silver platter. Every stroke of her guitar is echoed in the grievous look on her face. This is a song that projects far beyond the singer; this song suffers for the damnation of generations.
"There ain't no sweat boy/that's on a-this mountain/that runs like mine, boy/that runs like mine"
Exhibit D: 16 Horsepower. A band from Colorado whose musical DNA is a mix of traditional country, Appalachian folk, hymns, murder ballads, early Bob Dylan as well as Joy Division, Creedence Clearwater, and The Gun Club. The band is led by David Eugene Edwards, a man who spits truth from a chemical mixture of fire and brimstone. The truths of his narrative aren't mine but in his deepest moments of fervor and intensity, when his work dons the devil-shaped wings, he makes his truth mine. See here:

Anger is what puts the crack on the whip. The truth of
anger is that it isn't about taking power so much as losing it. Anger, done right, is our humanity at its most vulnerable. Love is our higher aspiration but anger, for better or worse, is what we're best at —if only because we're most familiar with it. Most of the performances posted on this blog are the pearls of such resonant anger.

Exhibit E: There are a few versions of Tom Robinson's "Glad to Be Gay" on YouTube (here's an earlier version with slightly different lyrics), but this one gets closest to the heart. Note how he encourages the audience to sing along before the first chorus and by the third the audience kind of retreats into stunned silence. (It begins in the second verse when he gets to the line "see how disgusting we are in the press." Something breaks behind his eyes and we're there with him.) This performance is from an evening of otherwise comedic performances, The Secret Policeman's Ball from 1979. Kudos to Tom for the courage of launching this flaming arrow into an otherwise lighthearted evening.

Said Picasso: We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth. And this, Picasso didn't say: Truth is found when experiencing one another’s passions. So, it's all about emotions: The more honest the work of art, the more emotional the truth. Art may be subjective and political and egotistical and jealous and envious; it is, to misquote Kerouac, the grey film that catches the actual pink juice of human kind.
Whatever else, this we know: Art without passion is art not to be trusted. And for better or worse, anger is often the truest path.

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