The Difference Between an Artist and a Performer

What makes some art memorable, and other art merely pleasurable? It’s a question I’ve thought about a lot during my career as a writer and reader, teacher and editor, and much more so now this past year, when my wife Alma and I have moved from Illinois to Rhode Island, as part of the reshaping of our lives that is called retirement but that we prefer to redefine as rewirement. As part of the move I had to cull my professional library, contained in both a home and university office. Over the course of nearly a year, I kept chipping away at my book collection, filling bag after bag for donations to our local public library. I must have shed 60% of the books that had found their way to me for over forty years.

And now I sit in my new and cozy home office, surrounded by my favorite books, the ones I loved when reading them and still love when remembering them. And then there are the books I haven’t yet read, but brought along because I can’t wait to delve into them, now that I have the time. These shelves in my new office feel more personal than any others in my life.

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But how did I know which books to bring and which to leave behind? Was it simply personal preference, choice by choice by choice, or was some principle involved, even if only intuited?

One way to answer this question is to take a different, though related tack: my CD collection. I love music, of all kinds, and have always possessed an oversized collection (I have a lot of music downloads too—yay, Bandcamp!—but that’s another issue). Here too, I had to cull, and now in the living room and sun room are shelves filled with my favorite music.

One decision was easy: the music of John Martyn. A British folk/blues/rock/jazz master, Martyn produced consistently excellent records, from 1967 until his death in 2009. He was a brilliant and often tortured soul, capable of expressing deep passion unusual for popular music, yet he was equally adept at writing and performing songs of sweet, even transcendent beauty.

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The essence of why all of Martyn’s albums made the cut, however, boils down to one song: “Lookin’ On.” It’s from Grace and Danger, released in 1980, an album that recounts the breakup of his marriage to the folksinger Beverly Kuttner, arguably the love of his life.

The first stanza of the lyrics of “Lookin’ On” sets the scene: a post-coital moment, two lovers lying on their backs in bed, but all is not right:

What kind of love is this
Concealed behind your kiss
What kind of love would try
Behind a silent cry
To come stealing in, with an innocent grin
To leave you staring
At the empty ceiling, feeling nothing
Lookin’ on
I’m just lookin’ on.

The song develops this portrait of physical intimacy no longer able to sustain emotional intimacy. It’s deeply sad, and the combination of electric piano and acoustic guitar, layering minor chords, perfectly echoes the lyrics.

But it’s a ferocious and disturbing rock ‘n’ roll version of “Lookin’ On,” recorded live in 1983 at The Bottom Line in New York, that turns this artful song into something remarkable. It’s clear from the performance that Martyn still hasn’t moved on from the hurt of the breakup. As he sings the angry fatalistic lyric “I’m just lookin’ on,” he improvises a verbal riff not present in the original version of the song, words that underline his deep ambivalence. “I’m just lookin’ on” becomes “I can’t look at you anymore, I can’t stop looking at you, I don’t want to watch you anymore, don’t make me watch you” and so on in helpless rage, until finally he’s whispering into the microphone his reluctant resignation. Martyn isn’t singing only to the audience at The Bottom Line, he’s singing to his absent ex-wife, revealing his conflicted feelings, how hard it is to let her go. She might as well be in the room and the audience is simply eavesdropping.

And here, I think, is the difference between an artist and a performer. A mere performer sings directly to the audience, the relationship resembles a straight line. The performer is A, the audience is B. Very direct, nothing complicated about it.

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But an artist does something different, creates not a line but a triangle. In Martyn’s case, he is singing to his absent ex-wife. He is A, and she is B, and the audience is C.

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Only the audience can physically hear him, of course. She isn’t there. And yet, in a way she is, she’s the reason for the song being sung, the message of his still conflicted feelings is for her. The fact that she’s not there to receive this message is another part of the drama that the audience overhears.

A triangle is richer than a single line. That’s the art the best writers (and artists and musicians) strive for. Perhaps art needs to speak to someone, to an actual someone whether present or absent, alive or dead, a someone in an artist’s life who has fueled the need for art making. In the case of writers, an abstract readership is a dull target. Readers, I believe, are most drawn to work that wasn’t written for them and yet still speaks to them. We long, whether we know it or not, to be the C in the A, B and C of an invisible triangle, we want a more complex geometry in art than a simple straight line. We want to eavesdrop on a drama, not to be merely told about it. Whomever James Baldwin, Dostoevsky, José Saramago, Flannery O’Connor or Wistawa Szymborska is speaking to, I want to listen.

And that, I think, must have been the guiding principle in my decisions of what to keep, and which of my books to let go of (often reluctantly), in preparing for a cross-country move. And now my shelves are filled with books and CDs that are secret triangles, waiting for me to take my place in their equation.

There is no video of the John Martyn performance I describe above, unfortunately, but this video of a performance of “Lookin’ On” from 1985 comes close.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t also include a video of one of Martyn’s most graceful songs, “Small Hours,” from a 1978 performance. A single voice, a single guitar multiplied by an echoplex tape delay that is manipulated by his foot, and a gentle and timeless sonic world is created.

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September 15th, 2016 by admin

You Got to Take Care of Your People

When I was a college student I used to work as a cab driver in New York City.

My first week on the job was a disastrous time. Every single cab I’d been assigned had broken down: the first night, a tire blew out; the second, the engine overheated, steam rising from under the hood in the middle of an intersection; the third, the horn wouldn’t stop blaring; the fourth, my taxi stopped and started unpredictably—a mysterious mechanical hiccup that chased every passenger away after a few blocks; and at the beginning of a thunderstorm on the fifth night I discovered that only one windshield wiper worked—the one on the passenger side, of course.

I eventually discovered why all those taxis broke down on me. By the start of my second week on the job I was afraid to answer to my name when the taxi dispatcher called it out in the waiting room, and I had a long time to wait and worry, because it seemed I was always the last one assigned a cab.

I remember sitting there beside one of the guys I had categorized in my mind as a lifer—a man with an unshaven, pockmarked face, a gut and greasy uncombed hair. Someone my young self couldn’t imagine becoming, was afraid of the very thought, but he was friendly, complaining about the weather, wishing me good luck for the night while he waited, so I found myself pouring out to him the disasters of my first few days on the job.

He nodded sympathetically through it all, and then simply offered, his voice lowered, this advice: “You got to take care of your people, if you want them to take care of you.”

I nodded my head, as if I understood. Soon the dispatcher called him, then a few more guys were called, and two of them had reported to the waiting room after me. Why was I always one of the last drivers given a cab?

Idiot. Of course—I checked my wallet, to see what sort of bills were there, how many people I could afford to take care of–who, as it turned out, were the dispatcher, the guy in the lot who chose the cabs, and the two workers who checked the water, the oil, the tire pressure, the wipers.

“You got to take care of your people, if you want them to take care of you.” Ethical questions of bribery aside, sometimes I think this is the best writing advice I’ve ever received. Isn’t it the web of our relationships that gives us a center of gravity, that gives our interior landscapes the context of others? And as writers, we employ what we’ve learned of ourselves, of our relationships in order to create the breathing space of difference for our characters, to help us imagine their own particular realities.

One of the best examples I’ve ever seen of this aspect of the writing process is in James Baldwin’s novel Another Country. One of his characters, Vivaldo, is a budding novelist struggling with the characters he’s created:

“On a Saturday in early March, Vivaldo stood at his window and watched the morning rise. The wind blew through the empty streets with a kind of dispirited moan; had been blowing all night long, while Vivaldo sat at his worktable, struggling with a chapter which was not going well. He was terribly weary—he had worked in the bookstore all day and then come downtown to do a moving job—but this was not the reason for his paralysis. He did not seem to know enough about the people in his novel. They did not seem to trust him. They were all named, more or less, all more or less destined, the pattern he wished them to describe was clear to him. But it did not seem clear to them. He could move them about but they did not themselves move. He put words into their mouths which they uttered sullenly, unconvinced. With the same agony, or greater, with which he attempted to seduce a woman, he was trying to seduce his people: he begged them to surrender up to him their privacy. And they refused—without, for all their ugly intransigence, showing the faintest desire to leave him. They were waiting for him to find the key, press the nerve, tell the truth. Then, they seemed to be complaining, they would give him all he wished for and much more than he was now willing to imagine.”

Much more than he was now willing to imagine. A beautiful phrase. If you take care of your people–your characters–by offering the truth of yourself as you understand it, then they just might take care of you with their own hidden truths. It’s not so simple to accomplish, though. We all have our own personal histories to unravel, knots inside ourselves that it sometimes seems no untying can manage. But believe me, you do not want your cab to break down five nights in a row.

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June 18th, 2010 by admin