I’ve enjoyed it. It’s quite good. I’ve kept it in the player for weeks. I’ve even caught some of the tunes going through my head during the day. They worked well together, although their styles remain quite distinct. When you hear the opening piano chords, you know which voice you’re about to hear.
But… there’s this sadness I associate with it. Good as it is, it’s simply nothing like what both of them were producing in 1970 and ’71, and for a short time after that. I really enjoyed John’s work, from “Your Song” through “Tiny Dancer” on “Madman Across the Water.” As for the Master of Space and Time, I doubt that he had any bigger fan than I, back during the “Shelter People” period. “Stranger in a Strange Land,” for instance, remains an all-time favorite. And who else could have pulled off his show-stealing performance at the Concert for Bangladesh?
On that subject, Leon put on the most awesome show I saw live in the early ’70s, if ever. It was in Memphis. The opening: All the Shelter People were on stage, without Leon. There were two grand pianos. At one of them sat a black guy (who really music aficionados can probably name, although I cannot) rocking out in a gospel style (or so it sounded to my untrained ear), and the Shelter People — or whatever they were called at this point, essentially a “hippie commune bonafied” on tour — were energetically jamming along with him. The music built, and built, still without Leon. It had been going on about 10 minutes, it seemed, and everybody was pumped, and then… Leon stolled out on stage. He was wearing a white suit, with a white top hat, and playing a white Stratocaster. He ambled, back and forth, playing lead over the music… then he climbed up onto the second piano, and stood there with the guitar, rocking away. Finally, he climbed down, put down the Strat, and got serious. He sat at the second piano, and he and other pianist duelled away, with the other dozen or so other people on stage rocking along with them…
It was amazing. What a showman.
People get older. Their powers diminish. Certainly, their energies do. One great thing about being a musician, though, is that you generally retain the ability to make something beautiful, even if it lacks the power of what you did that made you a star, if you were a star.
I got to thinking about this yesterday when I saw a Tweet leading me to a thing about Kevin’s Smith’s movies, ranked from Worst to Best. There were 10 of them. Fortunately, it was not called a Top Ten list. You couldn’t even honestly come up with a Top Five from this guy’s work, not if you had taste. Basically, he had a Top One — “Clerks.” Some of you who think me a prig would be surprised that I even liked that, but it was really well done. The pottymouthed script was inventive, clever, as were the acting and the direction. Not even Jay and Silent Bob wore thin, for as long as the film lasted. It made you want to see more from this guy.
And then you did see more, and you wished you hadn’t. It’s probably a good thing he’s decided to desert his oeuvre and turn to more pedestrian, formula comedy (“Cop Out,” which this list placed last, but which was at least mildly amusing).
Kevin Smith is only 41. He was born when Elton John and Leon Russell were at their peak. But he peaked with one film.
That happens, with creativity. It’s a tragedy, when it deserts the young. Look at the Beatles. Of course, the Beatles were so amazingly improbable to begin with. How could anyone, so naturalistically, produce so much material that was that diverse, from year to year, and that appealing? It was inhuman. It was the sort of thing that in a different cultural context gives rise to dark mutterings about clandestine meetings at the Crossroads at midnight.
But it didn’t last. As they broke up, it looked as though it would. Lennon produced “Instant Karma;” McCartney gave us “Maybe I’m Amazed.” George Harrison seemed to explode, having been repressed, with “All Things Must Pass.”
And that was it. They faded. Mozart died, but they lived to see their talents fade. The wonderful thing about Paul McCartney is that he appreciated that his fans loved the old stuff. So did he. (If you’d made John Lennon stand on stage and play Beatles songs, he’d have shot himself before that other guy did.) I saw him at Williams-Brice, and loved it. But, as I noted the other day, it’s sad to see him dyeing his hair, still trying to be the Cute One. That time is past, Paul.
Of course, one looks for such fading in oneself. Fortunately for me, I never hit the heights that these guys did. I was a decent writer by local standards, impressive to some people. Just enough people, in my book. It’s nice to have strangers come up and say kind things occasionally, but it’s also good to be able to walk down the street anonymously 99 percent of the time.
And as we age, things fade. First, one is no longer indefatigable. Gone are the days when, as a reporter, I could work all day, all night, and through the next morning before taking a nap (something I did frequently, back in the day).
But if you don’t rise too far, you don’t have as far to fall. I never wrote the Great American Novel (not yet, anyway), so I didn’t have to publicly struggle to replicate that for the rest of my life, while everyone scoffed. When one muddles along, one can continue more easily.
I look back at stuff I wrote 30 years ago when I find it moldering in a box, and it’s good. It has a spark, one that I lament. But it’s strange how one’s appreciation of one’s own work morphs. At any time in my adult life, I’ve thought the stuff I’d written six months earlier SO much better than what I was writing currently. Then, six months later, I’d think THAT stuff was the best I’d ever written. That has continued through my blogging years. (My old blog was SO much better-written than this one — even though it wasn’t nearly as well-read. And the stuff I wrote on this blog a year ago is amazingly better than this tripe I’m churning out now.)
What I’m writing now is the worst stuff I’ve ever written. (In my opinion, which is what counts, since I’m an introvert.) But it has always been thus. Aside from its lack of creativity, it’s shot through with typos and incomplete thoughts, mangled sentences. Because I don’t read back over it, and don’t have an editor — and everybody needs one. But I look forward, ever hopeful, to enjoying it later.
When I don’t do that any more, I’m not sure what I’ll do. Relax, I expect.
What about y’all, in what you do? As critics, do you disappoint yourselves? If so, take heart. Perhaps it will look better later. And even if it doesn’t, the stuff Leon and Elton are putting out is still quite good…