Swinging Modern Sounds #4: On Being Unprofessional


I was going to start this post by talking about Bruce Springsteen. I was going to start by saying that there was a certain moment in the output of Bruce Springsteen when I realized I was no longer interested—because he had become too professional. The moment was: “I’m On Fire.” I was going to say -since “I’m on Fire” was coeval with “Born In the U.S.A.,” among his finest compositions- that maybe our greatest success sows the seeds of imminent failure. Maybe our beginning is our end. Maybe we’re born astride the grave, professionally speaking. Maybe it’s inevitable in music and literature (and art generally) that we get promoted to a point of incompetence. Or maybe there’s just something perverse in me that gets bored once an artist ascends to the peak of cultural impact. Maybe it’s really hard to make a masterpiece—whatever that is, whatever culture needs for it to be—and upon doing so, upon making a masterpiece, it’s really hard for the artificer to want to bother with the heartache of the thing all over again. Maybe most musicians, at the end of the day, just want to be professional. Maybe that great ambition of the rock and roll player, to quit his day job, is the beginning of the end. Maybe you should always keep your day job.

Also: I was going to say that my late sister turned me onto Springsteen, ahead of the curve, giving me The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle some months before that other record came out and made him a household type of name. And maybe because my sister is no longer living, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle is one of those albums (along with Zuma, by Neil Young, and Collaboration, by Shawn Phillips) that will always seem like an unsurpassed masterpiece, even as it seems, for me, wreathed in death. Maybe what’s great about music is what we use it for, and not its innate qualities. (I can remember driving to the beach in Rhode Island, in 1983, listening to “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye, and for me that’s what that song will always summon.) Maybe music, even more than literature, is owned by the listener. Every artist, when contemplating quitting the day job, when contemplating a profession in music, should remember that the casual listener is no auteur theorist. They give a shit mainly about what’s playing on the radio on the way to the beach.

Meanwhile: I’m trying to write an essay about Antonin Artaud right now and in this capacity I was reading Jacques Derrida’s essay about Artaud’s drawings, where I came across the following lines, concerning Artaud’s total inability to render in “professional” way: “The awkwardness . . . comes from another source and is submitted to. Artaud means to reappropriate this hand and this body against what he calls ‘the drawing principle,’ that is, against the strict organization of that kind of know-how which regulates itself by foreign forces and compromises with them.” What a strange, beautiful thought! That awkwardness (inability, refusal to improve) is to militate against an academy of compromises! This is, for me, exactly what “unprofessional” music does. Having said this, I should say that I do understand that when Bob Dylan commenced to imitate the singing style of the late Woody Guthrie he was, in truth, making just this sort of compromise. And thus I know that Dylan, the trickster, is just as guilty of professionalism as, e.g., Whitesnake. And I further know that all the indie rock kids with their constructed inability and their Will Oldham-style imperfect intonation, can be just as calculating.

Still, it’s with the guilessness of the truly unprofessional musician, the crudity of means, the foregrounded impulsiveness of the unprofessional musician, that you occasionally get a glimpse of what music really is, and what human psychology really feels like. The unprofessional musician really cares about what she does, because she only does it when she cares about it. The professional musician has a mortgage, a contract, kids, a model girlfriend, managers, and hangers-on, and he can’t stop playing even if he wants to. He will flog the horse until the horse collapses between his legs.

I bring all of this up as regards a songwriter I really like. A somewhat “unprofessional” type. Timothy Bracy, you’ll probably remember, was in a band called the Mendoza Line (named for the lowest acceptable batting average for a professional baseball player), who broke up in 2007 after making nine or ten albums over a ten-year period. The band, after some years of shifting constituencies, eventually hardened into a lineup that featured Bracy and his wife Shannon MacArdle as singers and songwriters—backed up by some really good players streamlining the vision. In this way, they made three very fine albums, culminating in 2007’s “farewell” package, 30-Year Low. This is one of my favorite albums of recent years. It’s really, really great, and not enough people heard it. 30-Year Low is mainly a country and folk-rock inflected affair, with a little Velvet Underground around the edges, likewise a little post-punk (especially on Shannon’s songs). But the whole never feels like one of those genre exercises. Because, most importantly, these are songs with words, songs that glory in words, and which, in their rush of images, shy away from nothing, from no confession, from no unsavory incident: “I’ve seen the whole three-act play, I’ve seen the poster and trailer,/and I never thought I have to pay so much attention to one girl just to nail her.”

Why was this the last album, you ask? Well, apparently paradise wasn’t so paradisal. Maybe it was never paradise at all, because the songs seemed sad as hell even before Tim and Shannon’s marriage fell apart. But by the time of 30-Year Low the principals could, if the songs are any indication, barely tolerate each other. The songs, whether autobiographical or not, are full of savage accusations (“She follows all your work/she’s got a fucking kitty on her shirt”), and there is the implication that many drinks were apparently drunk, and there was bad behavior on the tours (they even have a song called “Mistakes Were Made”), episodes of middle-of-the-night histrionics, and then the marriage was over, and what was left behind was one of the very finest documents in song about love and the lack thereof ever. Right up there with Blood On the Tracks and Rumours.

After that? Shannon made a solo album and seemed, well, extremely adept at getting in the last word, while Bracy sort of kept to himself, except for a few solo shows (he also holds down the keyboard spot in the band called Bird of Youth, which mainly features the preternaturally talented Beth Wawerna). But in retrospect, upon reflection, it seems it was Bracy who was the real writer in The Mendoza Line, not McArdle. Bracy’s voice, which is to Bob Dylan’s voice as John Prine’s voice is to George Jones’s voice, is a brokedown and sodden thing, perfect for giving up entirely. His voice sounds like surrender was written on his birth certificate. His voice sounds like it never met a melody that couldn’t be improved on by mumbling and deciding not to bother. But the words, the words (“Baby, don’t you think you’re being a little too drastic/there are things in this world you can’t buy with plastic;/you blew threw your cash like a Klondike miner/you made me feel the lash of the intelligent designer”), the words are so frigging great that you don’t care about his voice (you come to love it, in fact) likewise his by-the-book rhythm guitar playing (ditto). He writes like almost no songwriter of his generation, with an absolute vision of and a total commitment to the ugly truth, even if the truth emphatically does not flatter him in this his third decade (“Trading’s mixed, the dollar’s weak, productivity has reached its peak, now you’re lying in the basement contemplating a 30-year low”).

And so we come to the bulletin: in this unprofessional present, this disagreeable now, Bracy is attempting to get a new band off the ground. Fitfully, with mixed emotions. Is it taking so long because he associates the whole band thing with unadulterated pain? Is there any point, when your ex-wife has become so efficient at the deployment of her side of the story (taking a page from the Mia Farrow and Claire Bloom finishing schools), to making another album? Why bother? Still, against all the prevailing wisdom, Bracy intends a new band. The band, so far, is called the Collection Agency (a growth business with which Bracy has apparently had acquaintance in the time since his divorce settlement). And Bracy has a running sequence for his album, and a number of really good demos, many of them leaning on the 12-bar blues more than on recent Mendoza albums, and all of them appropriately skeletal, even naked.

Of the songs I’ve heard the best is one called “Doug Yule.” Doug Yule, it will be recalled, was the guy who joined the Velvet Underground after John Cale was dispatched, and who, with reliable if barely inspired work ethic, played Lou’s foil on Loaded. After even Reed had left the band, Yule insisted on making a last Velvets album by himself. This album is effaced from nearly all accounts of the Velvets. Doug Yule, the very height, therefore, of professionalism! Let me quote: “Nico said ‘I cannot make love to Jews anymore’/That’s what she said when she broke it off with Lou./And a man can work, but can he pay his dues anymore?/Like the Velvets in the time before Doug Yule./Doug Yule, Doug Yule/Life just can’t be this cruel/Why can’t I feel the vestige of new beginnings?/Doug Yule, Doug Yule/Spare me one more year through/I swear I have another album in me.”

It’s a duet, on this demo, between Tim and Beth Wawerna, she singing the part that Shannon might once have sung with warbly southern dipthongs. You can feel Bracy’s grief, here, his good humor (despite everything), his foreboding, and his absolute love of music history, which undergirds everything he does. But you can also feel, in these demos, Bracy refusing to do something, refusing to finish, committing to some of what neglect offers, which is exile and cunning and pathos, committing to awkwardness, in the face of excess professionalism, in a song about excess professionalism. Which is to say, for good or ill, that Bracy is another gifted songwriter, a sublime songwriter, laboring mostly outside of the music business, making songs for his MySpace page, biding his time. And as a result, in “Doug Yule” he has quite a bit more to say than you’ll find, e.g., in that new single, the one with the preposterous whistling on the bridge, from the famous New Jersey bar band.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →