Here's a picture of our dining room table, which is rarely used for dinner. Instead, it's a work table where Jamie fixes up some of the clothes she sells on Etsy and where I type a bunch of words. The tiny sandwich is what I had for lunch the other day: ham and provolone on dill rye with mustard. Behind the tiny sandwich you can see a pile of books, a few I just got in, and on the right, a pile of papers that is the still-growing manuscript of my book of music criticism that I'm working on.
I normally don't talk much about a project as it's developing, partly out of modesty—or so I tell myself—but mainly because I'm afraid the project will never reach fruition. As someone who has released five records under different names but shelved or neglected three others, and written two novel manuscripts ready or almost ready to be published by some wise editor out there but placed another three in the drawer, I know the creative process can turn jaggedly from enthusiasm to frustration. If people know what I'm working on, won't they wonder why it's never published, never released, or why I've stopped talking about it? And won't that require me to explain the…well, the failure?
The sense of failure is tyrannical in its totality. It turns the temporary into the permanent, the imagined into the definite, the inconsequential into fate, a good aesthetic decision into a punishment. The normally it's-bumpy-ride process of making something new becomes a judgment of one's character. I'm wondering if the antidote for me is to be total in my openness, my process, in order to not just overcome the fear of failure but to embrace it in a Buddhist sense: to recognize and free its grip.
So, the music criticism project. Tentatively it's titled Nothing Has Been Done Before, which was the title of my review essay at Public Books in November. Writing that essay, as I said in an earlier post, got me thinking about how we consider music new or not new. The word is thrown around so easily that it loses its meaning. I'm tearing into it, shining a flashlight into all the corners. I'm focusing on music made since 2000, for the most part, since the question of the new has become even more complicated in the internet age. Much of this was inspired by the confluence of reading two books, Greil Marcus' The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs (the subject of my Public Books review), and the philosopher Boris Groys' On the New. The title of my book is taken from a passage in an Arthur Danto book that's greatly influenced me, After the End of Art, and I'm also going back through Doug Rushkoff's Present Shock, some excellent Nick Tosches, Ellen Willis, and more.
The manuscript is a little more than halfway done. I've collected some of my PopMatters columns and revised them, in some cases significantly, and also written plenty of new chapters. One is a 17,000-word meandering mess at this point about Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft". Another that I just finished a draft of today is about three versions of "Atlantic City" by Bruce Springsteen. Other artists who I'm pretty sure will make a final cut, should that day ever come, are Gillian Welch, The National, Janelle Monae, Guided by Voices, Archers of Loaf, a bunch of indie-folk bands, R.E.M., Brad Paisley, and Prince. The question of music as a construct v. event is picked up in the book, as is Groys' ideas about the cultural archive.
So there's that. Now I have to live up to it. I'll be plugging away and all that, like everyone else. Only the tiniest sandwich can be eaten in one bite, and if that's the case, it's probably not much of a sandwich.