On Expecting Too Much

Mr Dylan refuses to look in the mirror, circa 1984

Something Alistair said in his weblog (Feb. 5) about musical profiency set me thinking about what we want from musicians, and from artists in general.

I think the short answer is: everything. Perfection. Let's start with all those supervirtuosic guitarists. I once saw Jimmy Page doing a TV interview in which the legendary axeman gave every indication of being functionally illiterate. Maybe he was just having an off day: no doubt any good Zep fan could list the many recherché interests which would attest to Page having an active life of the mind. Anyway, it didn't seem so likely at the time. This, I concluded, was the drawback to having most of your brainpower in your fingers.

We are, after all, unreasonably demanding as audiences, those of us in the nerd/ rockspotter camp. Ever since the 60's we've expected decent, self-written lyrics and music, played for the most part without the aid of session men. The serious rock hero or band therefore needs a spread of competences: dexterity and intelligence, flying fingers and biting wit, balls and brains.

Or, to put it another way, we require a wild, maverick spirit who also has impeccable, objective judgement. What would that be like? How about a Dylan who didn't, for a start, get photographed dressed in thrift-shop rejects? (This especially happened, apparently, during his 1980's wilderness period. As one example see the 'vagrant asleep on the bus' back cover of Empire Burlesque. That picture alone reduced total UK sales from 17 to 6.)

Or a Dylan who could, rather more pressingly, monitor his own recorded output and say (especially, again, during the 80's) "No, man, this batch of covers stinks like a dead dog in a cesspit. Let's release Blind Willie McTell instead".

The corollary, of course, is that at least some of the audience wouldn't be worthy of such consideration. It too needs to get its act together, discard its Ocean Colour Nonsense, its Wellers, and get with the programme. (It could start by looking at my own tastefully alphabetised collection.)

But back to our demands of the performers. We want a higher standard of personal achievement. We want Morrissey to go back to 1987, patch it up with Johnny (whatever it was), and not drift off into whimsicality. We want Hendrix not to broaden his horizons, calm down and, most importantly, not choke. We want Lennon to remain the Scouse Swift without being so bloody na¥ve (no, I didn't mention the B-word. I might have meant the solo stuff, too). We want Kevin Shields to shape up, and finish the album in time to keep My Bloody Valentine together. We want Lou Reed to grow up, not sack Cale, and thus avoid the humiliation of ending up doing office work for dad to pay the bills. We want to discover the second album the Pistols must have written at some point (perhaps it's hidden somewhere in the dozens of crappy "live" records). While we're at it, don't let's have John Lydon kicking Levene and Wobble out of PiL, either.

The last few examples hint at my conclusion: your heroes can't ever provide more than the odd bit of perfection, in any medium. It's just not humanly feasible to hit the full batting average every outing. There's only one Blood on the Tracks (well, technically, two, because with typical perverseness he re-recorded it), there's one Bicycle Thieves, there's a couple of hundred very fine Larkin poems (setting a standard no life, let alone his, could hope to complement). We all patch and edit, rewrite and fail; sometimes, pretty much by accident, the right word drops in, the paint lands just so, and people take to it. The best artists chiefly have much more practice and experience, and thus a clearer idea of where exactly the target is. But nobody hits the bullseye every shot.

© Mike Morris 2002