The saddest things on Earth, for my money, are the ruins of things that could have been great. That excludes archaeological ruins, of course; at one time they were legitimately impressive structures, or so we’re told by the “authorities.” What I have in mind here is a bit different: art, or music, or fiction that was spoiled by unnecessary meddling…even if the meddler was also its originator.
Potentially great fiction has suffered that sort of ruination on occasion. Rather than cite specific works, I’ll say this: Have you ever read a book that had the power to excite and exalt you, elevate your thoughts to a higher plane…but which was polluted by excessive sex, or violence, or the injection of political irrelevancies? I’d bet a pretty penny that you have, because I have.
Potentially great music is occasionally spoiled by the intrusion of a badly conceived passage, or a diversion into a poorly chosen key or meter, or sometimes just by noise. A number of progressive-rock artists – this is one of the few innocent uses of the term progressive I’ve encountered – have fallen victim to this hazard. The injection of noise into a piece is common. It’s a particularly heinous sin.
That’s the sort of thing that can make even a strong man weep.
I have a biography of Maxwell Perkins in my library. Perkins is still considered the most accomplished editor the world of fiction has ever known. The list of great writers he mentored and brought to a mass audience is staggering. It includes F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tom Wolff, Taylor Caldwell, Erskine Caldwell, and Sherwood Anderson. Several of those might not have become famous except for Perkins’s tutelage. Yet Perkins was remarkably modest about his role:
“An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. Don’t ever get to feeling important about yourself, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing….The process is so simple. If you have a Mark Twain, don’t try to make him into a Shakespeare, or make a Shakespeare into a Mark Twain. Because in the end an editor can only get as much out of an author as the author has in him.”
But in contrast to Max Perkins, today’s editors are more akin to today’s art critics, constantly striving to inject themselves into the works they edit. (Robert A. Heinlein: “You have to give an editor something to change, or he gets frustrated. After he pees in it, he likes the flavor better, so he buys it.”) Exceptions are few. It might have more to do with the proliferation of “woke” fiction from the conventional publishers than readers are generally aware.
In my wanderings through YouTube earlier today, I stumbled over a pair of songs I remembered loving ‘way back in the darkest Sixties, when I and their issuing artists were young. And of course, I played them, and realized that I love them still. But as I luxuriated in the memories, I remembered the rest of the album from which they came, and the ruination that had been wreaked upon them.
They were the product of a tiny, almost purely acoustic group that called itself Appaloosa. Guitar, bass, violin, and cello…and nothing else. The guitarist was a composer and lyricist of considerable originality and ability. Unfortunately for Appaloosa, at that time the major record labels weren’t interested in John Parker Compton’s kind of music. In consequence, the group fell under the sway of a producer who was himself a musician – and an egotist.
Al Kooper, for all his talents – and they were considerable – was the sort of man who had to be, in Heinlein’s memorable phrase, “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” It’s probably why, after a phenomenally successful debut album, the other members of Blood, Sweat, and Tears asked him to depart the group. When he heard Appaloosa audition, he decided that what it needed – apart from a recording contract, of course – was lots and lots of him. And he made sure they got it.
Of the eleven tracks on Appaloosa’s eponymous album, only two escaped Kooper’s gorilla touch. They were unique and refreshing then, and they remain so today. The other nine…well, you’re already aware of the subject of this screed. Appaloosa never issued another record, though Compton and violinist Robin Batteau did go on to modest success in other ventures.
Forgive an old man for a bittersweet remembrance. Here are the songs.
And have a nice day.