Monday, July 1, 2019

What's It All About ...

There was a little flurry of excitement recently in the area of Twitter I frequent, because someone had just learned that Joni Mitchell's song "Coyote" was inspired by the playwright Sam Shepard.  She had an affair, or perhaps a "flirtation," with Shepard in the mid-1970s during the Rolling Thunder Revue.  Someone gushed in a comment how glad they were to finally "know what that song was about."

Is it pedantic to say that Shepard is a who (whom, to go ahead and be pedantic), not a what?  I think the song is about the sparks that fly when two people who are "incapable of a relationship" (which is what she said of James Taylor) strike together.  It's not necessarily a bad thing: as the song indicates, it can be quite exciting.  I could sing this song myself with conviction.  But "Coyote" is certainly as much about Mitchell herself as it is about anyone else.  The critic Robert Christgau wrote of Hejira, the album it appeared on, "The reflections of a rich, faithless, compulsively mobile, and compulsively romantic female are only marginally more valuable than those of her marginally more privileged male counterparts, especially the third or fourth time around. It ain't her, bub, it ain't her you're lookin' for."  True, but Hejira is one of my favorite Mitchell albums, and I find it interesting that I like "Coyote" much more now that I'm old than I did when I first heard it in my twenties.

(To be fair, Christgau also wrote in another Mitchell review that "In a male performer such intense self-concern would be an egotistic cop-out. In a woman it is an act of defiance.")

I also find that I like Mitchell less and less the more I learn about her.  For example, when she told Mojo magazine (via) that "Joan Baez would have broken my leg if she could, or at least that's the way it felt as a person coming out [on to the music scene]."  Maybe she's right, but I think she's projecting.  Which suggests to me that I'd better not read David Yaffe's biography of her, in which she apparently lobs spitballs at just about everybody, mean-spirited and not even in an interesting way.  I don't remember which reviewer pointed out the self-pity that characterized many of her lyrics on her very first album, but he spotted it early.  There are several of her songs that I don't want to perform myself because of that.

Some more Christgau, from his capsule review of Mitchell's 2000 album Both Sides Now: "My favorite Joni story is that they tried to do a TV special on her and none of her old friends would pitch in. Even if it's a dumb rumor or a damned lie, it's a hell of a metaphor for someone who loves herself so much nobody else need bother".  I'm mean enough to find that funny, though I know that in 2019 a TV special and tribute concert was successfully put together for her seventy-fifth birthday.

But I digress.  Back to "Coyote" for a moment.  Suppose, as a thought experiment, that Mitchell and Shepard flirted but never actually made the beast with two backs.  Suppose even that they never actually met, and she knew him only by sight and reputation.  Suppose that she just wrote a fantasy.  ("Now he's got a woman at home / He's got another woman down the hall / He seems to want me anyway" is gratifying to the ego, isn't it?)  How would that change the song?  Not much, in my opinion.  I think a lot of people's prurient fantasies would be dashed, though, and they'd like "Coyote" a lot less.  For me, since I'm neither Mitchell nor Shepard, it's the song that matters, since it's all I really know.

I'd be curious to know how many people decide what a song (or a poem, or any other work of art) is "about."  Who or what inspired it is generally the least of it, and in my opinion the least interesting. Think of some famous Beatles songs: "Martha My Dear" is addressed to Paul McCartney's dog. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was inspired by a drawing made by John Lennon's young son, of a school friend named Lucy.  (Many people wanted to believe it was about LSD, from the initials, but they could also be Pounds / Shillings / Sixpence.)  The lyrics of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" were derived from an antique circus poster.

Or another famous song, this one by Bob Dylan.  "Mr. Tambourine Man" was the session musician Bruce Langhorne, who played "a large Turkish frame drum ... [which] had small bells attached around its interior, giving it a jingling sound much like a tambourine."  Is the song about him?  Even if it were, it's hard to say what it has to say about him.  Many people believed the song was about a drug dealer, or a drug experience; a highly knowledgeable high school teacher of mine confidently told me so, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence for this interpretation.  A writer for the New Yorker declared that "the song’s narrator describes losing his spiritual footing, only to implore a mysterious figure to guide him ... It is as tender a tribute to the alleviative power of friendship as I can imagine."  That's pretty good, though I'm not sure I agree with the "losing his spiritual footing" part.  I still like to hear "Mr. Tambourine Man" as a love song, not because I think that Dylan or Langhorne was gay, or that they had a "flirtation," but because the bittersweet yearning of the music and lyrics captures feelings I've had for other men.  It's interesting to know about Langhorne, whose musicianship I enjoy, but really, who inspired the song is gossip; and though, as a very wise man once said, gossip is the food of the gods, it's largely irrelevant to understanding art.

Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" is another good example.  People have been speculating for over forty years about who "you" could be -- Mick Jagger? Warren Beatty? -- and though I've always loved the song for its wit, I've never really cared who inspired it.  At one point it appeared that Simon had carpentered together jottings about several different men.  So, the vain "you" would be a sort of Frankenstein's creature?  Again, the model or models for the lyrics is gossip, and not important.  If you'd known any of these people, could you have come up with these songs? What matters is that Mitchell, Dylan, Lennon, McCartney, and others did.  That to me is the interesting mystery, and as a poet and songwriter myself it's still a mystery where the work comes from.

Gossip isn't the whole story, though.  People love being in on secrets, and they love decoding texts, believing that they are puzzles with a solid foundation of truth or knowledge underneath that they can access if they find the key.  Some texts are puzzles.  Think of the revelation books of the Bible, with their visions that must be decoded.  One thing I find significant is that Daniel and the Revelation both include keys, in the form of angelic guides who explain the symbolism, yet people tend to ignore what these guides explicitly say.  That may be partly because these books' forecasts of the End are false, so some readers decide that they've missed something.  Jesus interpreted the parable of the Sower for his disciples, and the interpretation is something of a letdown at best, which hasn't kept theologians from striving heroically to make it sound more interesting than it really is.  Numerous fans have treated pop songs the same way, obsessively trying to relate the imagery to something else, some Higher Truth that Dylan or Lennon knew but could share only with the elect who divided their Words rightly. The payoff is the conviction that you, the interpreter, are among the elect who have understood.

Some people complain that "crickits" take all the fun out of art by tearing it apart until regular people can't enjoy it anymore.  Biographical criticism -- looking for the meaning of the work in the artist's life -- especially infuriates many, but as these examples show, biographical criticism is lay / popular criticism, as are numerological and allegorical interpretation.  In general I'd say that the best way to avoid this problem is not to read criticism, but I think that regular people love tearing art apart, just in different ways and to different ends.  Think of the "Paul Is Dead" myth, that Paul McCartney died and was replaced with another musician, with many clues scattered through the Beatles oeuvre.  The idea that secret wisdom is woven into texts entrances many people, and trying to decode it, however erratically and irrationally, doesn't seem to spoil the experience for them.  For many it seems to be more important than the work itself.  They're not as different from the academics as they like to think.