Sunday, June 06, 2010

Lazy Sunday #122: Signs

This blog has been churning through some darker waters of late, dealing with a growing feeling on my part that things just aren't heading in the directions I'd like 'em to in either show business or the world at large. 

All of that's subjective, of course, bolstered by my reading of Michael Lewis' astonishing book "The Big Short" which basically explains how all those institutions you were raised to trust and respect are now mostly run by self-absorbed shit-heels.

And for those who avoid books about financial scandals because they appear dense and dry, I'd ask you to remember that Lewis is also the author of "Moneyball" , maybe the most entertaining book ever written about baseball.

Although that's in a neck and neck race with one by Will Pascoe, the bane of everybody who's entered the Infamous Writers Hockey Pool for the last three years.

Anyway, when mulling the collapse of the world economy, watching politicians get away with despicable behavior, oil spills where nobody seems to have considered the risks of the enterprise beforehand and security fences being built to hold back anybody who might want to speak out about any of all this; it's easy to start wondering "What's the point?"

Artists are endlessly afflicted and conflicted with this stuff. Sometimes it creates some of our best work. Unfortunately for those working in the Canadian film and TV businesses, the opportunities to realize that work either aren't there or require the prior filling of government forms.

I get letters all the time from newcomers looking for a handhold in the business from which to hang until they can see the next place to grip in the endless climb. None more poignant than one I got this week…

"Fuck. What do you do? Roll the dice anyway… …if widespread income disparity combined with rampant privilege and entitlement is the new black, does all art worth its salt nowadays have to address those questions in some fashion? Or is that the way it's always been too?"

My answer to all those questions is --- "Yes."

You just keep doing what you do.

It's tragic that Vincent Van Gough never sold a painting during his lifetime. But even if he had sold them all, it wouldn't have put him anywhere near the wealth and life options of anybody who owns even a single one of those canvases now.

But imagine how diminished the world and the human spirit would be if he'd met up with some Flemish life coach who steered him into a more prosperous career in cheese marketing.

Much like Columbian soccer players today, actors and writers in the time of Shakespeare were regularly poisoned, stabbed or burned at the stake if somebody didn't like their work. Now you just end up on "The Listener" or "The Bridge".

You have to just keep doing what you do.

That's why some some supreme being or thousands of years of cross-pollinating DNA put you and what you've got inside in this particular time and place. It's your fate or your starting point. That's the choice. Now embrace it and get back to the work.

I can find no better example of how this operates on a Sunday morning than -- "The Monkees".

For those who missed them the first time around in 1966, "The Monkees" were the first corporately constructed boy band, an attempt to cash in on the British Invasion that earned them the nickname "The Pre-fab Four".

They were okay musicians who would never have gone anywhere on their lonesomes without the money and talent that was put to work combining, bolstering and selling their limited talents. Their first records were actually the product of songwriters Jim Boyce and Bobby Hart with most of the instrumental work being done by studio musicians and members of successful LA bands.

By the time their TV series had died and their only movie had tanked, everyone associated with the group was openly admitting  "The Monkees" were merely a platform for everyone involved from producers to songwriters to the band to pursue their disparate career paths.

Nobody involved was happy. Nobody was doing what they wanted to do. But 40 years later, various combinations of the band were still touring and releasing records and still trying to rationalize how they hadn't allowed their lives to become a joke.

The direction of the world has always been determined by whoever makes the most money. And show business is but a small echo of that process.

But that doesn't mean you don't have a place or the chance to do good work.

To some extent, you need to separate yourself from what's swirling around you and just do what it is that you do.

A year into "The Monkees" phenomenon, a young songwriter named Harry Nillson auditioned to be a part of the machine.

Nillson was already a songwriter bouncing around the LA scene. But it would still be a couple of years before his theme for "Midnight Cowboy", "Everybody's Talking At Me" , would shoot him to stardom and Paul McCartney and John Lennon would dub him their favorite American artist.

Nillson met with Monkees' producer Chip Douglas and laid down some tracks that the band might want to record. That audition session has recently been placed on youtube, offering a wonderful insight into a not yet recognized talent.

Among the titles he laid down was a song everybody liked but not enough to buy for the group called "Signs".

Of all the beautiful music Harry Nillson wrote, this might be one of the most beautiful. Yet, it seems he never recorded it himself nor sold it to anybody else.

Oddly enough, it speaks to the very issue of never giving up, never losing hope and continuing to do what you do.

Hang in there. And enjoy your Sunday.


John McFetridge said...

Music is a good analogy. I remember years ago someone asked Mark Knopfler what he'd be doing if he hadn't made it big with Dire Straights and he said he'd be making money some other way but playing guitar pretty much the same way - just with a lot fewer people in the audience.

And writers have other outlets, too. Sure, working on The Bridge can be... well, let's not go there right now ;) but writers always have outlets.

Even if all you ever want to do is write for TV and the movies it may not be a bad idea to write short stories, write a novel, write something that doesn't require asking someone else's permission to get "produced."

Maybe even put it up on Smashwords or Kindle and make it available for people to read.

Sure, it's about as lucrative as writing a spec script but it can be good for the writer's soul, the same way playing music can be good for the musician's.

The White Wolf said...

I wrote a novel when I was in my early twenties (yes, it was semi-autobiographical and it sucked) then I got lost in the States for a couple of years; when I returned to Montreal, coaxed by musician friends, I started to write again - for the 'movies' this time.

Ironically I used to pity my musician friends because they had to depend on 4 other guys to practice everyday, get off work on the weekends to play gigs, and share girlfriends.

Crazy, I thought. Never once realizing that when I finished a script (which prolly sucked) I would need to depend on close to 4 hundred people if I wanted to get my script produced.

Now I'm going back to the novel.

Me, my writing, an awesome editor, and an audience. Ebooks.

John up there is right. I recommend author's visit to see a midlist (very shitty) author make tons of fucking money on novels all rejected by the NY publishers.

Clint Johnson said...

One shouldn't despair too much. We really need to stop every once and a while and remind ourselves that never in human history has humanity had it better than we do now and despite the way over-hyped but news selling negatives, our succeeding generation has a strong probability of living in an even better world.

The world we wring our hands over today would seem pretty fantastic to time travellers from fifty years ago, amazing to those from a hundred years ago and an unimaginable utopia to visitors from 150 years ago... as long as they actually looked around rather than read all the doom and gloom.

Sure there are still great wrongs in need of righting and there are real dangers to be faced- but I truly wish that, every once in a while, folks would focus on the positive rather than wallow in the negative.

Take television for example. I've written a pilot on spec that is set in the current civilian space race where, instead of building the spine of the show around stopping a looming negative, I set them a magnificent positive goal and then let the villains get in the way.

It will be a tougher sell to the executive suite than one wrapped in the status quo narrative of setting them up as being on a desperate mission to save a dying earth.

BUT I also think that there is a massive, pent up need for a show like this. I look around at the slate of dramas and I see nothing but show after show that are constructed entirely around the negative. The goals are to stop something bad from happening... and that is it.

Stop the bomb from going off, stop the serial killer, stop the Hellmouth from opening, stop the disease from killing the patient, stop the aliens from taking over the earth, stop the terrorist from assassinating the president, stop the devil from bringing on Armageddon, stop the smoke monster from tricking someone into pulling the island's butt plug - it seems that the only pro-active people out there are the villains.

I'm not saying that those shows are not great; how desolate would the dial have been without Jack, Buffy and the Winchester boys?

I'm just saying that it would be nice for once to have the villains playing catch-up.

Sorry to go off on a ranty tangent there- it's just that despair is gnawing at our society and I think a healthier balance would be nice.

Anonymous said...

I guess this just gets into the "do what you love and the rest will follow" philosophy. Write, play gigs, paint, take pics, whatever your muse drives you to do. If you want to make some money, maybe hustle the product a bit. If you want to make a living...well, see the first sentence up there.

I make a very good living at what I do, I'm very good at it...but I don't love it. At all. Mortgage comes first. I know, I know. Creatively unfulfilling, but I have commitments. Besides, Bukowski wrote his first book in a month while working at the post office (10 pages a day X 31 days = 310 pages...just saying). And Kafka did quite well working full time in the 30's version of a "cube farm".

I DO know some artists fully happy with their lot in life who squeak by selling the odd painting or two, or a gig here and a gig there. They often supplement this with odd jobs, welfare, or other, less legal means. Not my cup of tea, but they can at least call themselves "creatives".

And who knows, maybe that painting one of them gave me to pay a debt might be minor league van Gogh in a few decades. Or, with my luck, centuries. I'll have to get that into the codicil in my will, actually, in case my great-grand kids fight over it.

I once "hung" with a band here in Toronto that were up and comers. Hot, fast, loud and funky, they were "can't miss". Great street cred, lots of support from established bands like Jeff Healey, they eventually had to make a decision: Record Company A promised the world, but wanted more creative control, in order to ensure their investment. Company B was more laid back, didn't want to get involved as much in the music, etc.

You can guess the rest, I suppose. They went with option B, made the album they wanted, and of course, received no support, and eventually broke up. There is no free lunch.

BTW, the best example of "just write" is "The Twilight Zone". Rod Serling got tired of censors and sponsors messing with his stuff that he "hid" what he really wanted to say in sci-fi, which nobody really took seriously. The network said "what else do you have" after rejecting a few ideas, and he went to his file cabinet and said "well, I have this old thing...".

Joel Scott said...

Back in 1966, (my cell phone number now) my buddies and I would cart our metal wheeled first generation skateboards over to our special place.

In behind the Leader Post building on Park and Victoria was the sweetest new asphalt a 13 year old could hope for in the entire city of Regina. Not only was it ripple and crack free, it also had a slope out of the parking lot that was a fabulous match for our skate board tricks,

In the same building a prairie radio powerhouse CK 620 am was also housed, so the back door to the parking lot was always opening for employees, journalists and the odd political luminary would depart or arrive.

Some were there to do a live radio interview or to sit down with an editor for the paper. I had volunteered to be a Voice Your Choice phone tabulator for the local popular DJ on 620.

This was a daily ritual at 4:30 each day, where three selections were played and the audience was encouraged to phone in and "voice their choice" of selections and then the votes were tabulated, with the winner advancing.

It was there on 620 that I heard Yellow Submarine, Jimi Hendrix and Blue Cheer for the first time.

But every great song was always usurped by a Monkees tune that would muscle everyone else to the ground.

The DJ, who orchestrated this teen fest was Terry David Mulligan, the Forrest Gump of events.

If it was happening, Terry would somehow show up and not only witness the event, he would always end up on stage and be a participant.

Terry was the centre of celebrity ville in Regina and he knew it. In fact he was often haughty and arrogant with teen fans unless he knew you. I fell into the latter category and Terry was always nice to me as I volunteered for him.

Well, one of those sunny lazy afternoons, skateboarding behind the radio station, I heard Terry's voice call out, "Hey Blondie get over here!"

We padded to the door and Terry asked us to hang for a minute and he'd get us some used 45's.

He disappeared into the station and returned with 3 used 45's and gave them to us. They were Monkee 45's and we were very appreciative.

He then said how about we get those signed boys and reached around the door to pull out....PETER FUGGIN TORK!

We shat our pants. We were talking to a Regina!

I asked him why he was here and he responded that his dad was a prof at the fledgling University of Regina and his family had moved here from Connecticut. He was just visiting and had called up Terry as he liked his radio shtick.

He also gave me some currency that I could trade with long after he left...his parents address on Angus Crescent. An address where many a teenager stole rocks from the front yard or blades of grass, lest he had walked on them!

He told me he would be back at Christmas so I could drop by and say hello. Imagine the self esteem boost and the bragging rights we were now empowered with, plus we had his autograph as proof for doubting classmates.

Some girls cried when they held the 45, it was a powerful lesson in an anointed blessing from a pop star and it certainly help focus my career choice.

The synchronicity of this event was not apparent to me until the early 1990's when I formed a duo with Mama Cass Elliot's brother Joe Cohen. At the same time I was skateboarding in 66, Joe was living at Cass's house in LA and a regular guest was Peter Tork.

25 years later while on tour Joe told me that Peter was his neighbour now in Massachusetts, and they shared a coffee clutch together. With 380 million people in North America, somehow, Peter Tork underlined the word synchronicity for me...and the belief that anything is possible, no matter where one lived.