Today I decided to go for lunch down the road a piece, near that used bookstore called "The Book Rack". The Book Rack just looked cool to me, even if it is in one of those mini-mall with a grocery store complexes that are not as bohemian, say, as the Maple Street Bookstore in Kansas City, which is its own little storefront stuffed with incredible volumes of books on a little street called Maple "tucked away". I wanted to try the Book Rack out. I love used bookstores, with a passion I reserve for few other enterprises. The Book Rack had some really cool stuff, justifying the detour.
One dollar and 8 cents later I had an older copy of Edna St. Vincent Millay's Lyric Poems. On paper, I am not much for "lyric poetry", unless by "lyric poetry" we meant really cool art rock song lyrics that someone has called "poetry". But as I sat eating the duck on offer at the little Chinese buffet next door, passages of this book leaped out at me like aphoristic fireflies, eager to catch my eye. The little thing from "fig 2", in which she bewails the ugly old houses on the rock, inviting people to her incredible house built on the sand, is haunting. I realized, briefly, that I am in general one of the owners of ugly houses on rock rather than glittering but ultimately failing houses on the sand. I can live with that realization.
Ms. Millay's problem, of course, was two fold. She was
a poet gifted at writing verse everyone could understand,
and a poet who was willing to work in rhyming and metrical forms already fading by her heyday. She also had the misfortune to be a wild and lonely social butterfly of sorts. In the hallways of poetry, nothing is worse for one's reputation ultimately than surges of popularity accompanied by personal popularity. Accordingly, once lionized, she soon became a sort of "too popular to love" poet among academics. Even the reappraisals now spend as much time on her rather promiscuous personal life. Were she a man, she would not be pillored-by-odd-biography in this way. She'd be lionized. She'd be Baudleaire.
It's a problem, being "popular". Never a problem I've had, mind you, in either sense of the word, but a problem. Take REM. Make a solid local 45, a solid EP, and two albums on a midsize label that sell, but not as well as they should, and you're a "find", a future-of-rock-n-roll. Make 12 solid albums, with due attention to your craft, and you're suddenly too popular to be "cool". I'm not saying I'm immune to this type of fickle fandom, myself. I still debate whether "Darkness on the Edge of Town" is the last good Springsteen album or whether it is "Nebraska". I never doubt that "the River" is in some ways the beginning of the end for him, creatively. I recognize, given some of his great more recent stuff, how unfair that is. But I find myself wanting that inner "cool" of being able to say "I knew him when...".
Over at the website which connects to Bill Nelson's weblog, my favorite "rock guy", Bill Nelson, writes in his diary about the odd feeling of having fans insist he put together a band to play only the music he wrote 30 years ago, in his mid twenties. Bill Nelson, for those of you who don't know his work, is an incredibly gifted songwriter and guitarist who used to captain a band called Be Bop Deluxe. Nelson's work is particularly appealing, because his lyrics capture better than most the difficulties of being a failed romantic in a deeply cynical, post-romantic era. Be Bop Deluxe, a group of young men in three piece suits fronted by this amazing guitarist with lyrics from on High, travelled the span from late glam to art rock to pre-punk before disbanding. After Be Bop exited, Nelson's career has gone to much more daring country. Gone are the searing guitar solos, the art-pop-possessed melodies, and the major label poses. Here, instead, are twenty plus years of electronic and ambient work, prolific, eccentric, experimental and entirely not-Be-Bop-Deluxe-y. Bill Nelson's ambient work transports me, stated simply.
What makes this time in Nelson's weblog so interesting is that he is preparing to appear at the "Bill Nelson" convention, Nelsonica. Apparently, on one of the fan message boards, a wild debate has broken out--what songs should Nelson play. A solid, vocal group voted for a series of the old Be Bop Deluxe songs. One fan went so far as to say that nothing since those old days is worth listening to at all. Nelson's own diary addresses the curious phenomenon of fans who want to hear only one's "juvenile" work, the work most "popular", the work in some ways the least developed. I noted in a recent entry Nelson's determination to play the old stuff, but also his mild dismay that his least-well-produced, most naive material is all these fans want to hear.
I love that old Be Bop Deluxe stuff. It appears on my "now playing" section often, because it is an important part of my childhood. Bill Nelson the guitarist and sentimental lyricist captured the 70s for me. But frankly, I have to wish folks would just get a clue. It's 2002! Bill Nelson is no longer the mascara-drenched youth who wrote songs about the Yorkshire landscape, ambiguous passages, sci fi and doomed love. As he mentioned in his diary, people keep thinking he is some "bigtime rock star", who is somehow denying his "fans" something they 'deserve', when in fact he is a 54 year old man who has never sold that well, and who has spent years trying to build an artistically satisfying body of work all his own. Heaven protect those who must depend on "fans" for their bread.
No matter who one is in the creative arts, somebody wants to
make one into someone else. Give me that ugly house on the rock anytime. I was reading Millay's 'Renascence', the first big poem that "broke" her onto the national poetry scene. In that poem she describes suddenly absorbing an understanding of the meaning of everything, and just screaming from the insight. I wonder if she came to guess, in her poem, just what the pursuit of fame and fans does to people.
One of my points of needless pride is that a Creem Magazine Readers' Poll in the early 1980s once quoted me, an ordinary reader, as saying "America has still not discovered compassion, literacy or Bill Nelson". On days like today, as to many artists, I feel the same way as I did then, and wonder if America ever will discover compassion, literacy or the many Bill Nelsons of the world.