Watching the instant portraits Matt Jacobson at Le Grand Magistery continues to post on his YouTube channel (see Sunday's entry for others), it seems to me that I began writing my own job description about ten years ago, and the job I created for myself was this sort of unreliable guide role, this spur-of-the-moment liar-who-tells-the-truth. Having failed at the pre-existing social roles I'd previously been trying for ("pop star" or whatever), I came up with this one-off role, a sort of mockumentarist, an honest quack, a turner of nothings into somethings. It's a sort of showy-offy highwire act, and not something just anyone can do.
Watching these clips now, I grin but also squirm in embarrassment. There's every chance that these improvised portrait songs will go horribly wrong; insult their sitters, bore the audience, make me look bereft of inspiration. Mostly, though, they don't. They're saved by the high stakes, the inherent drama of risk, and the final triumph of sense over nonsense. Because actually -- and this is the secret behind this act -- nonsense is harder to achieve than we believe, and sense comes easy. Sense is "the sentence of every sentence", the fate of all semantic units like words, chords and melodies. They can't not signify something.
Chords and rhymes and songwriting conventions coax the few biographical facts I select to work with in directions I can't even know about until I'm actually singing the stuff, but what emerges -- sort of amazingly, like a rabbit coming out of a magician's hat (and Matt of LGM, filming all this and undoubtedly influencing it too, is a magician himself) -- is relatively coherent, and surprisingly relevant.
The reason it works as entertainment is that the listener, in on the discovery and hearing it at pretty much the same moment I do, almost feels as if he's up on the guitar string high wire with me. Somehow something songlike emerges, to everyone's relief. Yet it stays scrappy and silly and imperfect enough -- awkward as a stumbling, kicking new-born calf -- to make you laugh.
Sometimes a song will express unexpected violence, like this one, in which I imagine a psychiatrist giving electric shocks to a colleague. (How did Michael feel about that, I wonder?) Or like the Kahimi Karie song, where I take her favourite colour (red) and find it soon enough on the tip of a breadknife, recalling the Pygmalism song I recorded with her that same year, which sees the Kahimi character "plant my dagger in your breast" to get even with that paternalistic Pygmalion, her creator (in the song it's an explicit reference to Blade Runner, and the scene where Roy Batty kills his creator Tyrell):
Even if, as in A User's Guide to Layna, the chords go all awry, the song can still work if the concept is strong. Here it's Layna's job as a technical writer which becomes the hook, as I imagine writing a manual for the writer of manuals (and again it's this theme of the tables turning):
The artist Justin Lieberman once staged an advertising agency in Zach Feuer's gallery. That's very much what I was doing onstage on the Stars Forever tour; making adverts for people after hasty meetings hashing out the kind of things they wanted said about their "products"; their lives and selves. Sometimes the slogan surprised its copywriter, as in this song in which I tell Carrie -- who's not having much luck dating men -- "why not swing the other way?":
What I like about these videos is that they show something eccentric and excessive. After all, you're really just supposed to stand on the stage and sing your songs, not do this kind of thing. But what you see here is a man a bit bored with his role, determined to write another one for himself. What he's writing, apart from songs, is a new job description for himself, one that leads directly to Saturday's little stint as an Unreliable Tour Guide.