You can read innumerable columnists’ fulminations about the atrocity in Afghanistan at hundreds of other sites. Perhaps thousands; I’m disinclined to count into the four digits. (Not enough jelly beans.) So here at Liberty’s Torch you’ll get…well, at least some material of other kinds. We like to think of ourselves as the Waldorf Salad of commentators. You know: eccentric, flavorful, and utterly unsuitable before a meal of anything but McDonald’s Chicken Tenders or Kraft Mac’N’Cheese. But enough of food metaphors. (You probably had enough of them upon reading the title of this piece.)
In his remembrance of the late Charlie Watts, drummer for the Rolling Stones these past six decades, Mike Hendrix strikes the jugular:
In all pop music, the Thing, the essential, crucial Thing, is to not overplay, to not burden a good tune with a lot of extraneous self-indulgence. Every talented professional will get his chance to show off his chops and shine a little, in every set he plays. But the REAL pros know that when you throw in everything but the kitchen sink in every damned song, you dull the impact of your sharpest material. First rule of showbiz, taught to me by my dad, my uncle, my early-childhood piano teacher, my church-choir director and high-school band director (same guy), and pretty much every musical mentor I’ve ever had: always, always, ALWAYS leave your audience wanting more. ALWAYS. Playing with discipline and restraint rather than letting it all hang out and flop around all over the place is one of the ways you do it.
Self-indulgence has been a recurring theme for me, these past few years. It’s an important, almost ubiquitous feature of all the arts, particularly the performing arts. The late Joseph Sobran once said, in a remembrance of Sir Alec Guinness, that the majority of “great” actors are over-actors. Their highest priority is ensuring that the viewer notice them. They deliberately put emphasizing their presence ahead of portraying the character.
Alec Guinness never did that. Indeed, he was famed for his ability to disappear into a role, such that the viewer would forget who was playing the character for the duration of the performance. Consider the incomparably different characters he portrayed in The Man in the White Suit, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Tunes of Glory, and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Or consider Guinness’s portrayal of eight greatly different characters in a single movie: his tour-de-force Kind Hearts and Coronets. Except for Peter Sellers, I can’t name another actor who’s even attempted anything that difficult.
Guinness didn’t place himself above his art. For him, getting the audience to see the character rather than the actor was paramount. There aren’t many actors, “great” or otherwise, of whom we could say the same.
But “virtuoso” performers almost always place themselves before their art. They want you to notice them – to be awed by their skills. It’s not good for the art, but it does get them the plaudits of the fans.
My preference has always been for the artist who sees himself as a servant to his art. He’s not there for adulation. He’s there to tell the story / sing the song / portray the character, and that’s what he does. It’s a form of the work ethic that’s sadly undervalued in our mee-meee-meeeee-look-at-ME era.
Rather than beat this all the way into the magma layer, I’ll close with a few words from an artist who worked with words and stories: the late Ursula Le Guin:
Music will not save us, Otto Egorin had said. Not you, or me, or her, the big, golden-voiced woman who had no children and wanted none; not Lehmann who sang the song; not Schubert who had written it and was a hundred years dead. What good is music? None, Gaye thought, and that is the point. To the world and its states and armies and factories and Leaders, music says, “You are irrelevant;” and, arrogant and gentle as a god, to the suffering man it says only, “Listen.” For being saved is not the point. Music says nothing. Merciful, uncaring, it denies and breaks down all the shelters, the houses that men build for themselves, that they may see the sky.
[From “An die Musik” in Le Guin’s Orsinian Tales.]
Or perhaps you would prefer Fountain’s way of putting it:
“It is in the food.”
And so it is and must always be.