When I was 16, my parents sent me on one of those international exchange programs. I chose Mexico where I lived as a native in a rural place in the state of Veracruz. It was a life-changing time; my host family had never even seen an airplane-- had no electricity or plumbing-- and there was nothing but our common humanity to provide a basis for bonding. I ate strange food, rose with the roosters, lived simply and without worry. At the end of my stay, all the students in the Americas met up at an international conference in Mexico City at the soccer stadium, where I was asked to play my guitar and sing something uniquely American. I performed Universal Soldier in front of a massive audience; I even got an encore. Racking my brain to find a song promoting world peace and unity, I tried out The Bells of Rhymney but halfway through the second verse realized I didn't know the words. I choked, left the stage while the announcer mumbled something about la señorita being 'muy despeinada'.
After I met Andy Warhol several years later (he often passed by the gallery where I worked) I told him the story, as my first public humiliation. He laughed and said as long as no one filmed it, it wouldn't be held against me. I wanted to ask him if that might have been my 15 minutes, but he didn't really like questions; he liked answers. So many years later, I still dread solo gigs, as much as I feel this is as close to my real core, and am somehow compelled to subject myself to this. I've analyzed and analyzed: who cares if I'm terrible? Plenty of people are terrible? Nothing helps, and really, few people care.
I'm not sure if it's my age and impatience, but I've recently found myself reacting with increasing bitterness and cynicism at the state of culture in general. Music disappoints; I rarely see films or concerts-- I cannot really afford these things anyway. I know Carnegie Hall lives on, the Philharmonic-- and maybe this is a sad omission but I don't miss them; I have cds and records. What I do miss is the complete paralyzing excitement of seeing something like the de Kooning women in the 1960's-- Andy's wallpapered room of cows-- the first Graffiti show, early Jean-Michel… Hendrix. John Lee Hooker-- before I knew about him, or Tim Buckley in the 1960's. I've wondered if I'm just too old and ruined to see anything with new eyes.
My neighbor is a famous editor and writer. His work is indisputably important and post-modern. He is critical of what I do, although he occasionally praises me. There's a certain snobbery in his circle; contemporary writing has to be tough and terse. I browsed one of his recent books; one section is just a list of words… difficult words, uncomfortable words outside of most people's reach. Okay… maybe like a Donald Judd or some minimal sequential thing-- but Judd has a certain universal, unpretentious simplicity. The literary version is awkward and I hated it.
Personally I know my poetry is flawed; it is human and personal and maybe too emotional. It is overly confessional and sympathetic, and I want it to be accessible and not difficult. I think I'm not sure whether at this stage of my life I'd fall in love with Proust again, or be able to read Georges Perec or even Jean Genet with the intensity I gave these so many years ago. I might be critical of Henry James now, or find Trollope excessive or silly. I cringe occasionally at Anne Sexton; I worshipped her in the 1970's. Some of the books my neighbor promotes-- well, they are brilliant, in a way--- but they do not sweep me off my literary feet, and I care little for the characters. The language doesn't get in my blood. I want to be better, and I want my heroes to be better, as well. I am not claiming to be an artist or a great poet, but I do want to be read, and understood.
Again, I am not sure what I am expecting. I do know that few millennials have the sense of context that my generation was given. Education has changed; history, aside from phenomena like Hamilton-the-musical, seems less pertinent to this generation. We used to be able to look at a painting or hear a recording and place it in a timeline; not so, now. Reading has changed for so many, and the way people perceive music. They listen to so many things simultaneously, while multi-tasking; even volume has become subjective. Art seems to play to this audience-- it is rare that I enter a gallery and find quiet simple canvasses. There are crowds and chatter-- phones and selfies. There is theatrical lighting and music and there is performance; at my one and only visit to the new Whitney, there were roving performance artists; they were embarrassing and distracting. I could not 'hear' the paintings.
But most of all there seems to be this sense of 'self'… I mean, even Andy Warhol had anxiety about his work-- insecurity. A true artist hears his voice and executes as best he can, but he is never sure-- he has doubt and asks questions. He knows his work is a process. This culture seems to be so sure of itself-- so smug and narcissistic. And a majority of the audience is obedient; they like what they are told to like, they hear what they are given, they wear what they think they should wear, what their 'icons' wear. This worries me-- the diversion and commercialization of the process. Art and fashion have become bedfellows; this has energized fashion but cheapened art. And while I detest the massive cultural joke of Jeff Koons, I am also left cold by the more pretentious, dehumanized, technology-heavy exhibitions. And there is so much out there-- trillions of images and soundbytes-- so much spectacle-- so many celebrities and events, a million channels. How can we expect anyone to connect deeply and intimately with ideas the way one reads an old book in a quiet room? Somewhere in every country, artists are despairing-- important canvasses and books are burning in a digital bonfire. A sacred tree is surely falling at any given moment in a night forest, and no one will hear.
Still, I have this relentless need to communicate, which I think is the seed of all art, and a certain faith that I may touch even one person, or change something. I suppose the experience of being dropped into a strange cultural river at 16 taught me a certain lesson… and I am grateful for The Bells of Rhymney, the riveting and beautiful words of a Welsh coal miner who educated himself, which somehow found their way into music and onto my teenage record player and changed my life.