Carlo Rotella, Charles Farrell and James Parker
James Parker: Aren’t we describing an endless oscillation, or a kind of aortic valve that you’re closing between these two conditions?
Carlo Rotella: Maybe we are. My original hope was that we might just find a more wrinkly way to think about it that isn’t the obvious compromise of Well, you need both.
JP: When you compromise, you’re risking fucking up both ways.
CR: You do it wrong and don’t make it new?
JP: Exactly! You do it right, badly.
Charles Farrell: Or you do it right in fifteen different ways, which makes it wrong.
CR: That’s the How many sets of hands has this screenplay been through? problem.
CF: That’s exactly what it is.
CR: I still have a deep suspicion that it’s not just my perverse personal taste, that in fact there’s a kind of systematic logic to one’s perception of the relative merit, relative value, the relative importance of doing it right versus making it new as you go across the forms and genres. As we’ve been saying, part of the answer is that historical conditions can create a situation in which somebody needs to make it new or play it right. Market marginality or centrality can squeeze out all the making it new or playing it right, so if any shows up you treasure it and value it.
CF: There are so many fail-safes put into doing it right when there’s a lot of money involved. By the time it reaches the market it can only have been done right.
CR: You mean, like, if I was going to a big arena show of some major entertainer, I would really be hoping—
CF: You’re looking for the experience that separates it—
CR: I would hope that they would screw it up in some way that it would make it new. Like come out roaring drunk and make a spectacle of themselves.
CF: And that’s why with mainstream entertainers like, I don’t know, Judy Garland, people live for the fuckup. I mean, that’s the thing that elevates it. Because that’s the only thing available.
CR: Sort of a substitute for making it new.
JP: At that level, the fuckup is the only thing that will make it new.
CR: The halftime show at the Super Bowl might be the ultimate example of that. The only reason I would watch the halftime show at the Super Bowl with interest is if I knew that something was going to go wrong. Like the lip sync would screw up and they had to actually play the instruments. And I would be, like, Okay, let’s watch, because that would be interesting.
CF: This is all the opposite of the Little League game, which resonates for you in a very specific way, as does hearing the group at the Station Inn. And it’s quite a similar way.
CR: There are institutions involved that shape the work and the experience—a music club, a youth baseball league—but they’re not money-intensive. In both cases we’re at the margins of the market, getting together to put on a show in the old barn, essentially, which is reason enough that I will be thrilled for them if they do it right.
CF: So in a sense, doing it right is very secondary. Because doing it right is the product of what’s interesting to you. And what’s interesting to you is a kind of problem solving.
CR: Yeah, I love problem solving—problem solving in context. Let’s say Elizabeth Warren is in a TV debate and a crazy person rushes in from the audience and tries to hit her, and she makes him miss and makes him pay in absolutely orthodox fashion: she, like, double-jabs, hooks off the jab, head-body-head. There’s nothing more overcapitalized and predigested and inevitable than a presidential campaign, so there’s just about no value to me in watching her do the debate right and solve whatever debate problems it might present, like how to talk about gun control without alienating centrist independents, or whatever. But I would be immensely satisfied by watching her solve this other problem, do this other thing right—even better, in some ways, than watching her make it new with some crazy idiosyncratic martial art she invents on the spot. Because I would want to know how it came to be that Elizabeth Warren knew to hook off the jab. I would start having questions about the historical and stylistic conditions in which she learned how to hook off the jab. Whose gym has she been spending time in? Who’s she training with?JP: I watched this footage of Crosby, Stills, and Nash playing a festival in California somewhere, and basically that thing happens. A nutter arises and starts having a go at them, like, Ah, everything’s being commercialized! Stephen Stills gets so triggered by this geezer that he just comes over like he can’t handle it and is very uncool about it and ends up almost fighting with this man, who’s clearly very vulnerable himself. They have to be pulled apart, and it’s kind of a disgrace. But it’s a magical fuckup, a beautiful moment.
Charles Farrell has spent his professional life moving between music and boxing, with occasional detours. His book (Lowlife): A Memoir of Jazz, Fight-Fixing, and The Mob, will be published in July, 2020.
James Parker is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the editor of The Pilgrim, a literary magazine from the homeless community of downtown Boston.
Carlo Rotella‘s latest book is The World Is Always Coming to an End: Pulling Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood. He is a professor of English at Boston College.