III. History

Carlo Rotella, Charles Farrell and James Parker

Carlo Rotella: I think this is actually a pretty genre-specific conversation, at least for me. For instance: Westerns. If you were to just make a Western correctly, I’d be happy to watch it. Even if it broke no new ground, no emotional or formal new ground, no historical new ground.

James Parker: Here’s another thing, though: if you make a Western properly now, it’s almost camp. Right?

CR: I don’t care, though. I’d be happy to watch it.

JP: But there’s a camp-ness that comes from playing it right when you have a dated form.

Charles Farrell: I guess so, but that doesn’t have to be the intention of the person making the film.

CR: Right, they just want to make a Western.

JP: That may be, but they can’t, because historically things have changed. You can’t be that simple anymore. It’s more complicated. Because you’ve seen all that, and you know what a Western is, you’re in a different position from the people who made the original Westerns. Hence: camp.

CR:  One of the things I’m trying to piece together is why for me the dynamics shift around so much from genre to genre. In some genres, doing it right would be enough for me; in other genres, merely doing it right is heart-stoppingly disappointing.

CF: Well, does that have to do with the trajectory of doing it right?  In some cases the language moves forward in a linear way so that doing it right is achievable, and endlessly achievable, so everybody can do it right. As opposed to, for example, boxing, where the language is no longer in existence and is receding very quickly. So doing it right becomes increasingly difficult, and in the end almost impossible.

CR: We’re essentially asking How much does the history matter?  That’s what James is arguing about the Western. So, for instance: fantasy right now, another genre where I am perfectly satisfied with doing it right. Tons of fantasy being written. Most of it’s not that good. But some of it’s good. And the language of fantasy doesn’t seem outmoded or out of date at all. It seems right on the money for thinking about the world in which we live. There’s no automatic retro quality to doing fantasy right. So, in that genre, doing it right feels not only satisfying to me, but topical. In another genre, it might be the opposite, as in the case of the well-wrought, well-reviewed literary novel. I can read and reread Edith Wharton and be perfectly happy—for my money, she’s the great American novelist—but whatever her contemporary equivalent is, I can’t even face.

CF: Isn’t that at least partially because Edith Wharton is about time and place? And there is no equivalent?

CR: That’s what I don’t know. I don’t want this simply to be that I have weird tastes in some areas and conventional tastes in others. I’m trying to find a key, or a code, to how the play between our two principles works, for me and for other people. Boxing is our shared extreme example on the side of doing it right is enough; fiction writing is probably my extreme example on the side of doing it right is not enough, and jazz would be Charles’s.

JP: But aren’t we always in the position of waiting for the guy in boxing who comes along and you say This is it. He brings something that was impossible until he brought it. And then seems inevitable the second you see it.

CR: I think of it as the opposite. I think of it as That fighter brought something ancient and underrated by the current age’s emphasis on disruption and the new. Basically, that’s what happened when Anthony Joshua fought Andy Ruiz for the heavyweight title. The good-looking, well-hyped, well-tuned marketing concept ran afoul of a fat man with fast hands who can fight and wouldn’t stay down and concussed the shit out of him and made him quit. Some version of that could have happened 100,000 years ago on the savannah.

CF: But you could use somebody like Muhammad Ali, or Roy Jones, as a guy who would appear, on first glance, to be doing something brand new that’s useful.

CR: And also would appear to be doing things wrong.

CF: But, the point is, they are doing things wrong, and it’s not useful to anyone else. What you’re seeing is someone who’s so extraordinary that they can do something—

CR: Yeah, what you’re actually seeing is a stylistic mule that can’t reproduce—

CF: Yeah. And that’s something that’s only true for a limited period of time. It always catches up to them in boxing and they end up taking a beating. And, of course, it always introduces what they do into the general language of bad habits.

JP:  So, these are people who are bad influences, right, terrible influences—

CR: Because they’re geniuses.

JP: Because they’re inimitable.

CR: The question remains: is there a code, is there a key, to think about how you would arrange the art forms and the genres on these two axes, or is one’s response really just autobiography posing as critical sensibility?  Is there a logic other than I like/I don’t like?

JP: What I like, I like the feeling of something new happening before my eyes. That’s the ultimate aesthetic buzz for me.

CR: See, I don’t think that’s the ultimate aesthetic buzz for me. I’m walking through the park, there’s a Little League game going on. There’s a pitcher nobody can hit, throwing fireballs, a little wild but overpowering. A batter walks; the next kid up bunts the runner over to second base. The next kid manages to chop a weak ground ball behind the runner to get him to third base, and the second baseman can’t handle the bounce. First and third, one out. The next kid up hits a sacrifice fly and the runner on third scores. I would stop and watch that all happen. I would think Look at them, doing it right, solving the problem; it’s beautiful. Nobody could hit the ball hard, no clean hits, and yet they’ve managed to score a run. There’s no making it new in that. Teams that can’t make clean contact on a dominant pitcher have been doing that thing—bunting, hitting behind the runner, try to slice a pop-up to the outfield—for a hundred years. And I can’t think of another aesthetic scenario, walking past a Little League game, that would be more satisfying. That includes watching some kid totally make it new—inventing a new batting stance, pitching from right field, or whatever it is. I don’t need anything more than doing it right in that situation. Maybe the next person would be, like, Oh my god, that’s so boring. Of course they did that, that’s how you solve that problem.

CF: That has something to do with your affection for following rules. Well, this works!  And it refutes talent—

CR: True. I like rules, at least as cones to maneuver around, and I like that there are ways to refute talent.

CF: Sure. Talent is incredibly overrated.

CR: Talent also seems fortuitous, and nothing that the batting team did in that sequence depended on that kind of luck. The pitcher may enjoy a god-given ability to throw the ball hard, but everyone else just has to figure out a way to solve that. So, my question remains, what does our list look like of things we’re looking for to see what the specific play between making it new and doing it right’s going to look like in a particular setting?  Market conditions?  Historical relationships, like when the golden age of innovation in that form happened to occur?  What are the factors?

JP: Think about Hendrix. He was kind of a bluesman who exploded because suddenly the technology became available, and he was the guy who was physiologically, neurologically, artistically able to harness the momentum of that, and turn it into something no one had ever heard before.

CR: Okay, so what’s the principle there you can move and apply elsewhere?

JP: The principle is he was ready. At the moment that the thing struck, he was totally prepared.

CF: He was prepared because, for one thing, there’s an overlap between phases of innovation. He was the product of a really deep-down education. By the time he hit, what he was educated in would have been considered old, but was in fact incredibly revolutionary when it happened. He had been a sideman for Little Richard, who was every bit as revolutionary as Jimi Hendrix, in much the same way. So he took this language, thought Obviously I need to make it new. I can’t play like Little Richard, but I can take this lesson. It’s part of my language; I can speak this language, and now I can do this other thing. And to me, that’s sort of the perfect combination of experience and craft and figuring out something that makes it brand new.

CR: So then what do you do with his influence now?  At this point, when you hear somebody who’s clearly heavily Hendrix-influenced, don’t you just find it predictable and tedious?  I’d be seriously disappointed to go into a place and find out that there’s a Hendrix freak on stage replicating licks. Dude, I love Jimi so much!  Gee, what a bold and surprising choice of influences for an electric guitar player.

CF: But Hendrix himself still sounds terrific.

JP: It’s impossible to replicate the power and meaning of what he did, even if you replicate the licks, because the meaning is historically conditioned, historically determined. But that’s another paradox. The music is timeless, in the sense that it will always sound incredible, but it was utterly historically determined by who he was at that moment—

CR: Now, what if doing Hendrix now turns out to be the right tool for the right job?  What if you’re in a biker bar, and that’s exactly what the bikers want to hear, and the guitar player solves the problem by playing the most predictable, totally derivative Hendrix stuff. Are you bored senseless, or are you, like, He bunted the runner over to second, and then . . . .

JP: Depends on the atmosphere of the bar, right?  I can imagine circumstances under which that would be amazingly rewarding to see, like if he was transforming the mood.

CR: I see that, especially if the mood was turning ugly, and the guitar player saved the day by doing something utterly unoriginal.

JP: Yeah.

CR: So in the case of Hendrix, we’re saying: conditions in that historical moment, his doing-it-right preparation put him in the position to make it new, maybe the framing conditions in which he’s referenced now—

JP: What if we remove the artist from this, and just say there are things that need to be expressed, that the universe would like to express certain things?  Hendrix was the right tool at that moment—it was tremendous and unprecedented, but for a couple of years, he was able to channel that thing that needed to happen, that wanted to be said.

CR: If that’s the model, how do you cross-apply it to other things?  So, Muddy Waters?  Is that the same story with Muddy Waters?  Got the ideal training, technology makes a jump, a highly motivated audience emerges that wants something . . .

CF: I would say so. I think that one of the things that unifies Little Richard, Hendrix, and Muddy Waters is that they all have the component of being shocking. Every one of them is shocking. And every one if you hear them now, seventy years later, sixty years later, fifty years later, depending on the context, they’re equally shocking. I mean, I know I can listen to Charlie Parker, and y’know, I’m not thinking Well, this is beautiful, or I love this music, or I love this show. My visceral response is What the fuck?  You know?  Goddammit, this is shocking.

JP: Still!

CF: Absolutely. That’s what makes it innovative. It retains the power to shock.

CR: Can you locate its power to shock?  Since you are completely aware of what came before and what came after, and it’s certainly not a surprise and you already know it note for note, what makes it shocking for you?

CF: Well, you have to do some work. For it to be made shocking, once you’ve internalized the language, your awareness of where the language came from is what makes it shocking.

CR:  See, this seems like the impasse again. I can recognize and respect that shock, but that’s not my priority in listening to music or reading or going to the museum. My priority is expression, and I guess I feel that you can express almost any meaning or feeling simply by doing it right. You do not need to shock, you do not need to make it new, in order to create the full range of human meaning and feeling. But, you know, I get your point: things need to be expressed, and you need to find a way to express them, and sometimes it makes sense to invent a new way.

JP: Or the things themselves will find a way to be expressed.

CR: Or come at it that way, if you like. Part of our discussion that Charles and I often have is that he’s saying Somebody already did it that other way. Somebody already expressed those meanings, somebody found a way to express those meanings or those feelings. I’m done with that. I don’t need to hear that, or see that, or read that anymore

CF: Or I can keep it, and now that’s a part of my language. It’s usable now.

CR: Discounting something because it’s already out there doesn’t feel right to me. To me, simply doing it right all over again speaks volumes about the possibility of imposing order on what is essentially a malign and confused world, and that alone is reason enough to do it right.

CF: Is this about order?  I mean, should it be?

CR: It’s about making something in a world that wants to be stupid and meaningless. I guess I just feel it’s enough. If someone were to say You know what, I’m gonna learn to paint exactly like a nineteenth-century French Academy painter, I’d be, like, Bring it on. I would be totally happy to see those paintings. How about a Napoleonic battle or a scene from Greek mythology?  Those haven’t been painted enough.

CF: You know, there are kits for doing that—

CR: Yeah, do the kit. I’m for the kit. I am trying to decide whether I buy the assumption that there are things that you cannot express, or that the universe cannot express, other than by making it new. Do you have to make it new in order to say new things?

JP: I think so, and because you’re in a different time, in a different set of coordinates than when the thing first happened, it’s going to have a different meaning.

CR: You’re saying that’s the only way to get the right lego pieces to make the thing you want to make—

JP: Or that it will just mean something different. That’s why I keep saying, though this might not even be the right word, that there’s a dimension of consciousness. We can’t help knowing a little bit more than whoever invented it, in a way, simply because we know what happened to the invention.

CF: But we also know a little bit less than they did, and that’s important, too.

JP: All we know about these works of art, the only thing we know more than the people who made them, is what happened next, what effect they had.

CR: But Charles is right that in some ways we also know less, because we’ve also lost all this good stuff. Boxing teaches that lesson. Whenever you gain something and separate it from its origin in order to put it into the repertoire, you lose the context and the knowledge that people had when that something came into being.

CF: And with boxing, when you lose those things, you can’t actually do it right anymore.

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.

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