Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Modern Times

This record came in a wooden box. When I opened it the hinges creaked. Inside there was an old phonograph and a dusty ’78, cracked. The label said “Modern Times”. Next to it was a cowboy hat with a snakeskin band. And a green Bible with a passage marked, dealing with the Nazarene in the garden before he was kissed. A pin-up of the singer Alicia Keyes lay curling and grimy. On the back someone had written ‘Tennessee’. Beside it was a small drum of the kind a boy might have once played as he marched into war. There were stranger things I found it hard to credence: the sound of an old man’s rasp floating in the air like wet sugar or sand. From whence this sound came I could not determine. An old film reel whirred when I touched it and in my mind I saw couples in a well-lit barn moving to a country waltz. I withdrew my hand but for a moment only. There were love letters too, but like most collected love letters they were confusing and without date: one minute loving, another lusting, another hating (“some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains”). It was not clear if they were to the same woman, or if such a woman existed at all. There was also a drawing of a man, his face thin yet jowly, his moustache thin, eyes slitty and radioactive, something like a smile playing on his face. Underneath it were the words ‘Song and Dance Man, Duluth Minnesota, 24 May 1941.’ A New Orleans newspaper lay there too, badly yellowed and stained. It showed a picture of a black man with an electric guitar. As I leant into the wooden box to read the story below it I saw water marks had washed the print into a fog of dark type. I also began to hear, as of my ear was pressed to some kind of shell, the sound of a bar band playing far off down a street of laughter and partying. At this point my bones left my body and began to dance on their ownsome. I continued to climb into the box and lay down and eventually those bones rejoined me as the song subsided. I closed the lid and even though it was dark closed my eyes as well.

- Mark Mordue

* First published in The Big Issue (Australia) #263, 25th September 2006. After it was published an incoming editor let me know it was not the kind of thing they would be looking for in future. "I wouldn't say it was your best work."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Waiting on a Friend

"A smile relieves a heart that grieves
Remember what I said..."

I'm knocking on the door of an old friend who won't be happy to see me. He won't be happy because we're not really friends anymore.

It's a sour story to do with money never paid back. But it goes deeper than that, into bad words and bad faith, the way broken trust drops like a cracked stone into the pool of life and sends out dark circles to the edges of memory: that time when..., the moment he said..., a girl, an attitude, a hurt here and there that starts to look like a scheme.

So here I am today at his door.

I want to surprise him. And I know he will be nervous when he sees me.

I'm not sure how I'm feeling. I couldn't say I'm relaxed, but I do feel an unusual, detached calm. A quality in me that doesn't sit right with what I know is ahead of me.

I usually put a lot of energy into avoiding confrontations. I fear them. Yet when the moment comes, rather like stepping off an imaginary cliff, it's strange to find myself just as likely to float as fall. Maybe it's the thought of release from the rage I've been feeling that gives me some premonition of the cruel lightness that will carry me through today.

It's a sunny winter's day. The elements have not aligned themselves ominously.

As I knock, a typically tuneful rhythm, I start when I realize how automatic that rhythm is, how much of a jokey signature it's become for me. He's shared houses with me on and off for over ten years. So I worry he will recognize the knock and stay inside. Then I hear a voice, gravelly with sleep and disorganization somewhere down the hall. Despite the lack of shape in the voice, I know its him.

The next minute he's poking his head round the corner like a rabbit out of a hole. He's wearing a sloppy Joe and clutching a towel to his waist. As soon as he sees me I sense the adrenaline surge in him and my own drop into complete calm. I'll control the situation.

But how to begin?

I don't need to speak much at all as it turns out. He expresses himself in a jumpy dither, c'mon in, I was going to call you, come through, take a seat...

I mention the year old bills that haven't been paid, that he was meant to pay, and the debt collectors out after me, all of it in a reasonably gentle manner. Ask him about the receipts, where they might be?

He fires a round of questions that are coming off the top of his head. They're not questions that are looking for answers, more the rat-a-tat-tat machine gun fire of his nerves and a need to crowd the air.

I suggest we go for a coffee, ask him about a mutual friend, keep the tone bland and lazy. He says sure, runs off to his room to get dressed, stabilize himself. I imagine him shaking inside himself somewhere behind his bedroom door - and I feel a pang of sadness that this is where our friendship has led.

We walk outside to my girlfriend's car. Hop in. I brace myself for a sarcastic comment about the car, a beautiful old Peugeot. I've become used to his light jabs of sarcasm over the years, that undercutting way he has of making me or anyone else feel bad a bout a possession, a sign of progress of any kind.

But he says nothing. Just asks me how I've been.

I talk about work, overcommitments. He mocks the tone in my voice, a tone I did not think was there, says "me oh my" with a whiney laugh.

I feel vindicated. See him. Negative as ever. Correct him bluntly, turn the 'overcommitments' comment into a rally of superiority over him. Don't ask how he is.

We find a nearby coffee shop and park. Make some unbearable small talk while we wait to order coffees. Then it begins.

I quiz him about the bills. Has he really paid them? The debt collectors say they're not paid and it's me who has my name on all of them. He insists he has paid them, but will have to find the receipts. They're at his old girlfriend's, his brother's, his mother's, all the places he slept at and ran to over the past year I've been away.

I ask him if he's surprised that I might not believe him? This is the core matter really - a complete loss of trust. And quietly beneath that, unspoken, my contempt for him.

He looks at me as if he might cry. His eyes seem unduly large in his now shaven head, shaven to compensate for his premature balding, shaven and vulnerable as an eggshell. He says again that he has paid the bills. Talks about what passed between us after he moved in to my house for a few months, the breakup of his seven-year relationship with his girlfriend, how he was "off the rails all last year. I thought you'd understand."

There's barely a moment's silence before he adds that he's "better now".

It all fades away from me, a bunch of air. I go to say he wasn't honest with me. That he wasn't...

"I wasn't myself."

He says 'myself' victoriously. But the word comes out of his mouth all brittle. And when I hear it, my silence, my eyes - even as I feel his hurt, his guilt, his half apology, half attempt to justify himself - are all hard enough to crack the word to pieces.

The rest of the conversation is a spaghetti of details. I let him know about my loss of respect for him, his friends' loss of respect, and implicitly, his ex-girlfriend's loss of respect too. I indicate he has preyed on her trust and mine.

He tries to get angry but he doesn't have the power or the will. He mostly acknowledges my position. Tries again to appeal for understanding. And though I try to give him understanding, it's not soft. Instead I replace understanding with advice.

The conversation is over quickly; the rest is just details. Eventually he wants to leave, but I won't let him go straight away. I go back over the details he has brought up and slice them open with a surgeon's particularity. I have to resist turning hard facts into vicious trivia. And I try again in some qualified way to signal at least some care for his state of mind, for where he might be headed in this world.

Eventually we are out on the sunny street again. He looks shaken, gutted. Trying to act relaxed. We say our banal good-byes in the cool breeze in an old familiar spot where we have stood a hundred times before, and then I turn away in a manner that's not nearly as kindhearted as I wish it could be.

Out of the corner of my eye I catch him walking off alone like someone I know, carrying hurt. I wonder if I should call out to him. But there are no words, so I just stand for a moment, waiting. Then I cross the road and drive away.

- Mark Mordue

Monday, April 14, 2008

Dead Men Walking - The Return of the Cowboy

I was made aware that the Western was dead when I visited a junk shop recently. Looking down at a collection of cowboys and Indians just like the ones I had played with as a boy, I began talking to the shop owner about the fort they came with. She smiled at me and said, “Not many kids these days have an interest in a set like that. They hardly even know what cowboys and Indians are. It’s just not part of their world.”

Standing there in my Levi jeans and blue flannelette shirt, I too had to wonder if I would soon be headed for the ‘antiques’ store? A little more seriously I began to consider the saturating cultural force of the Western in everything from film, radio and literature to art, music and fashion throughout most of the 20th Century.

Though its residual influence remains today in everything from a pair of boots to a Ryan Adams song – not to mention the cowboy poses middle-aged Neil Young fans like me attempt to strike - the truth was obvious: the Western had all but faded from our cinema and television screens, and now seemed as archaic as the history it once so vitally envisioned.

And yet riding in over the horizon has come three major films which fall under a ‘New Western’ star. First there was the Australian director Andrew Dominik’s haunting epic, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a contemplation of notoriety and mortality in which Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck feature as the mutually hypnotized outlaw and his Judas. Almost right beside it was James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma, a clockwork tight, violent entertainment with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, respectively, as a good man trying to get a very bad one on the train to jail.

Then the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men came shooting its way into the Oscars, a ‘contemporary Western’ with Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin dogging each others’ tracks across the Texas-Mexico borderlands as a drug deal goes wrong and the body count rises.

All three are affected by classic Western tropes: the use of mirror opposites to personify good and evil in conflict as well as affinity; a journeying atmosphere of drifting and propulsion; the solemn moral philosophy and feelings of loss that underline most Westerns, as if something (the past, the frontier, the loner) is being overtaken (the future, civilization, the community); and the significance of an all-embracing landscape, within which lies the absolutes of sacrifice and death, and the almost mystical power of the horse and the gun.

The American ‘West’ has always been a violent place - in myth as much as fact. It remains the necessary imaginative territory America turns to whenever it needs to puzzle out its own identity as a nation, most particularly in the ways that force can lead to honorable ends (if not always honorable means).

Everybody is always trying to kill a cowboy, of course. The same thing might be said of the Western and its cinematic reputation. As a genre it suffers more than most for being judged on its’ worst, and most wooden qualities. As a result the Western has seen a few spells in the graveyard on Hollywood’s Boot Hill before reviving itself and walking back into the commercial maelstrom of Dodge City again.

Three films now do not constitute a movement. Reviving a seemingly dead genre takes a lot more heat than that. But it’s possible to see renewed vigor behind the Western when you also take into account the critically lauded HBO television series, Deadwood (2004-06) - a prosaically brutal take on how the chaos of a gold mining town is civilized – and Brokeback Mountain (2005), author E. Annie Proulx and director Ang Lee’s gay re-visioning of a cowboy romance up in them ‘thar’ hills.

In A Personal Journey with Martin Scorcese through American Movies (1997), Scorcese said that “the most interesting of the classic movie genres for me are the indigenous ones: the Western, which was born on the frontier, the Gangster Film, which originated in East Coast cities, and the Musical, which was spawned by Broadway. They remind me of jazz: they allowed for endless, increasingly complex, sometimes perverse variations. When these variations were played by masters, they reflected the changing times; they gave you fascinating insights into American culture and the American psyche.”

His point about the indigenous nature of these genres is a powerful one. To understand America, one must understand its Western Dreaming. And ask why, now, of all times, the genre has staged a return? Recognizing the way that the Western frontier moved on into Vietnam and the shock of defeat, and how that same sense of the frontier and some final moment of historical trauma continues to this day in Afghanistan and Iraq, might well a the reason.

What is strange about the Western as a genre is that it was dreaming itself into life right from when the American frontier was first opening up, until the West was more or less ‘won’ with the final massacre of Lakota Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee in 1890.

The dime novels of the nineteenth century and sensational news reports had already made the likes of Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill and Kit Carson legends in their own lifetimes. Kit Carson’s observation on what the dime novels said about him pretty much summed the whole thing up – “It may be true, but I ain’t got no recollection of it.”

By the 1890’s ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West’ was touring internationally, a vaudeville circus show that featured the man himself alongside Annie Oakley and Chief Sitting Bull re-enacting moments in the history of the West.

As ‘the reality’ of the 19th century receded the Western would go on to reflect the age in which it found itself: almost purely entertaining in the ‘30s and ‘40s when ‘singing cowboys’ like Gene Autry and later Roy Rogers rode the range; even more heroic and ennobling in World War Two when the Western began to take epic shape in the hands of such fine directors as John Ford and Howard Hawks; then shadowy and edgier in the 50s during the Cold War as Ford’s own palate darkened in films like The Searchers (1956), in which John Wayne played a vengeful and psychologically damaged Civil War veteran twisted up with hatred for Comanche Indians.

Perhaps most remarkable of all in the 1950s were a series of noir Westerns by director Anthony Mann, featuring Jimmy Stuart across eight films as a murderous and damaged figure trying to regain his moral composure and peace of mind. Stuart had once been the Tom Hanks of his age thanks to directors like Frank Capra, and the twisting of his image was almost unbearably bold.

In a renowned essay from 1954 entitled ‘The Westerner’, the film critic Robert Warshow argued that the cowboy “at his best exhibits a moral ambiguity which darkens his image and saves him from absurdity; this ambiguity arises from the fact that, whatever his justification, he is a killer of men.”

Warshow emphasized how the moral centre of the Western universe was defined by the gun. The significance of this cannot be underestimated in a country where democracy and the “right to bear arms” are somehow conflated, an equation born out of the historical violence - that is ‘Western’ violence, ‘frontier’ violence - that first made America a nation in the nineteenth century and later confirmed its place globally as a superpower.

According to Warshow, the Western “offers a serious orientation to the problem of violence such as can be found nowhere else in our culture. One of the well-known peculiarities of modern civilized opinion is its refusal to acknowledge the value of violence… These attitudes, however, have not reduced the element of violence in our culture but, if anything, have helped free it from moral control…”

Violence as an aesthetic, as a moral form, becomes an entirely necessary cultural act in Warshow’s eyes, something the civilized world needs to process. “Watch a child with his toy guns,” he writes, “and you will see: what interests him most is not (as we much fear) the fantasy of hurting others, but to work out how a man looks when he shoots or is shot. A hero is one who looks like a hero.”

George Stevens, the director of Shane (1953), arguably the greatest Western ever made, was considerably sanguine about this mythology. And yet his film Shane is perhaps the most pure ideal of the Western hero in existence, a fable that connects the gun slinger at his best with the knights of old. The director was nonetheless distressed to return from service in World War Two and see just how popular (and poorly made) Westerns had become: “People were using six guns like guitars.”

On the DVD to Shane the director’s son, George Stevens Jnr consults his father’s note books and interviews to reveal how “the film was really about deglamorizing the six-shooter that was becoming a graceful object in the fictional hands of illustrators [comics and advertising], and in particular film people. And it was a time when kids had gone very Western. There were Western chaps and hats and cap-guns everywhere. We wanted to put the six-gun in its place visually in a period as a dangerous weapon.”

You can roll out the statistics like tumbleweeds, but perhaps it’s enough to recall that up until the late 1950s a quarter of the films Hollywood had ever produced were Westerns. They would keep on rolling into day-time and late night television well into the next two decades, with the likes of John Wayne, Jimmy Stuart, Henry Fonda and Alan Ladd (Shane) sent to wander in some immortal loop in every boy’s mind.

It’s in the nature of television to blur historical epochs, repeating and recycling successful formulas till they drop. A list of television Westerns from the late ‘50s well into the ‘70s feels like an iconography of growing up through one unbroken era: among them The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Hopalong Cassidy, Maverick, Gunsmoke, Rawhide (which established Clint Eastwood as a star), Bonanza, High Chaparral, The Rifleman, The Texas Rangers, Shenandoah, Rin Tin Tin, Zorro, Casey Jones and Little House on the Prairie, as well as a comedy called F Troop and a martial arts Western known as Kung Fu. Even Star Trek fell under this dominating ethos, with creator Gene Rodenberry pitching it to the networks as “Wagon Train to the stars”.

1959 remains the high water mark for Westerns with twenty-six of them running in peak time on TV, eight of them ranking in the top ten most watched programs in America. Initially driven by the Cold War and an American need for moral comfort and heroic certainties, the cap gun age inculcated most of the young teenagers who would go on to fight in Vietnam into the values of sacrifice and bravery on the frontier, and what can be described as an archetypal style of violence.

To some extent television also tried to turn back the clock and deny the darkness of the cinema Western as the genre entered the 1960s. The ‘spaghetti Westerns’ of Sergio Leone, and a little later Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), exploded with violence and sardonically annihilated the lines between bad and good. Things on television were inevitably more defined and restrained, a kind of soporific propaganda. By the time news of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam was being put before the public in 1969, it was nonetheless difficult to view the mass slaughter of Indians as homogenous heroic entertainment anymore - or to accept a white hats and black hats view of the world.

Artists are not mere vehicles of sociology, however, and it’s easy to cite numerous films that contradict such neat historical positions. Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, for example, has been variously cited as a fable on the madness and horror of Vietnam War and a slow-motion celebration of bloody gun fighting that turned the ‘60s generation on to the thrills of violence. Like much great art it resists being simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’ within the moral terms we might prefer to frame it.

It’s nonetheless possible to argue that the ‘60s counter-culture killed the Western along with sheer over-exposure on television. As people were watching Slim Pickens slowly bleeding to death to the tune if Bob Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ - under what looked like an equally bleeding twilight sky in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) - it felt like a generation was witnessing the end of an era: “Mama take this badge off me, I can’t use it anymore. It’s getting dark, too dark to see.”

The failure of Michael Cimino’s epic Heaven’s Gate (1980), to even make it through to wide release confirmed that the Western was not only aesthetically exhausted – in Hollywood’s darkest terms it was bad for business, almost bringing down an entire studio in the process. Despite something of a renaissance at the turn of the ‘90s with the mini-series Lonesome Dove (1989) on television and both Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) netting Oscars for best films, all these works were eulogies to the genre in one way or another.

There’s something inherently regretful about most Westerns, which leads to the genre articulating its own demise through an ongoing obsession with mortality and time’s inevitable passing. The cowboy’s way of life is lonely and however noble or needed, it has to die. In fact the eulogy is almost the single common note struck by Westerns since the 1950s. As if at the very high point of American power there was something deeply embedded in the culture which sensed how things would ebb away.

This thread of regret often pivoted around a growing awareness that the ‘red skin’ was not simply a ‘savage’ but an abused and brutally displaced human being. It ran through films as varied as Anthony Mann’s Broken Arrow (1956) and John Ford’s last work, Cheyenne Autumn (1964), before reaching melting point in 1970 with the release of A Man Called Horse, Little Big Man and Soldier Blue, the same year Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, an elegiac history of ‘the Indian wars’ from a Native American perspective, became a publishing phenomenon.

A sense of indigenous wounds and lost causes was also filtering across into more contemporary American genres like the road movie. What, after all, is Easy Rider (1969) but a cowboy movie where the ‘horses’ are motorbikes. Dennis Hopper knew what he was doing wearing a fringed buckskin coat. The red-neck joke of the era was “Hippies are God’s proof that cowboys still fuck the buffalo”. This new generation was plugging into the spiritual ecology of the American landscape, and the result was they felt like Native Americans themselves.

Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1996) brilliantly twines American illusions about the frontier with these prescient Native American themes. As Johnny Depp heads further and further West by train, he is the very personification of Horace Greeley’s call to “Go West young man and grow up with the country”. This 1860s catch cry was caught up in notions of Manifest Destiny, a hodge podge of philosophies about racial superiority and religious duties to embrace “God’s providence” as set before settlers entering the landscape. That the flow Westward would also be the journey of America’s becoming as a nation, is oddly echoed in Native American ideas of the “vision quest”, where young man would go out into the landscape and receive visions (often drug induced) to confirm their manhood.

In many ways ‘Western’ cinema has been a continuation of this tension between a vision quest and American ideals of manifest destiny. It’s a dream that is played out in the crucial literary references that are made in both 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Principle characters in both films are seduced or fascinated the dime novels of the era as if they were true reports. In Jesse James this leads to obsession and disillusionment as the young Robert Ford sees that the real Jesse James is not the romantic hero he thought he was (and wanted to imitate). In 3:10 Yuma it’s actually the source of renewed idealization as a boy looks at a pencil sketch and realizes that it depicts his father just like the heroes on the covers of all the books he has been reading.

The echoes between the seductions of the dime novels and the seductions of these films today are not hard to miss. As visions of a renewed Western Dreaming they speak to rather conflicting enchantments: sometimes you get to play a hero; sometimes you land the villain’s role. By the end of 3:10 to Yuma, the boy’s father has nobly entered the mythology of the Old West before his son’s eyes. By the end of Jesse James, Robert Ford has killed his ‘hero’ and seen the charismatic world of violence for all its futility, only to be murdered himself: “The light going out of his eyes before he could find the right words.”

- Mark Mordue

* Edited versions of this story have appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum 'The Essay' pages, November 10-11, 2007 and in Frieze Magazine(U.K.), April, 2008. Quotes from Robert Warshow's essay 'The Westerner' were sourced from The Western Reader, Edited by Jim Kitses and Greg Rickman, Limelight Editions, New York, 1998.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

It's A Dog's Life

On a bad day — like today – I will empty a saucepan of reheated-one-too-many-times gone-cold again coffee into a dirt trough just outside my door. There must be quite a few bad days like this because the house dogs have started gathering regularly at around 5pm, waiting for their chance to slurp up an espresso with dirt and leaves. It seems to make them very active at night.

I’m throwing the old coffee away because I am making a new pot. I have got it into my head that the evening will be more rewarding. Throw caffeine in the blood, throw sleep to the angels. And sing like a dog to the moon.

I am, of course, a writer.

And I have chosen the path many find necessary when working on a book project: complete and utter seclusion.

In my case this means retreating from the city of Sydney where I live to a small country town of some 500 people called Millthorpe, a good three to four hours drive over the Blue Mountains out in what’s called the ‘Central West’. Holed up out the back of a friend’s garden, I do my best to emanate monkish dedication to the task at hand. Here I have a one-room shack with a wood stove, a stereo for company, a computer and about half my library along to stop me going insane. There is no running water, so I do the dishes in a steel tub, which I fill from a tap down at the main house. In this environment I feel rustic, authentic, Zen, native, humble, etcetera, all those mortifying things that might somehow prepare me for the divine act of work itself.

By comparison, my city life is filled with corruption: I go out too much, I drink too much, I enjoy too many things and too easily as often as possible. Amid such circumstances and temptations it is hard to keep my mind still for very long. Especially still enough to draw in my energy and give out the sustained focus that a book requires.

So it is that I’ve been out here — on and off, all right, I’ll admit it! — indulging in a stripped-down life since the start of the year, trying to immerse myself in the task at hand. As I write I am currently in that nether region between half done and almost finished that could go on forever (like Borges’s proverbial “book of sand”).

But my withdrawal from social life brings with it other concerns beyond actually finishing the project at hand. It also raises fears and thoughts that go right to the heart of what it means to be a writer. Most obviously, the process of sitting down alone, separating oneself totally from the world — often for long stretches of time — in order to communicate again with the world. A strangely circular and evasive way to make a living, you must agree.

More deeply, there is that dialogue with the self, that interrogation, which writing demands. It is not always a pleasant or happy conversation. I have always been haunted by the fearful lessons inside George Johnston's My Brother Jack. An apparently entertaining period piece about growing up in between-the-wars Melbourne, My Brother Jack descends into a picture of mid-life crisis and cruel suburban entrapment, and the awful reality that this particular Australian writer is more honest in his “fiction” than his life. A very unpleasant place to be.

J.M. Coetzee discussed something similar in the New York Review of Books a few years ago. The famed South African author was responding to a book called Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation (1999) by William H. Gass. Coetzee quoted a perception by Gass that went straight to the heart of Rainer Maria Rilke’s creative existence: that the German poet was an artist whose writing was “the consequence of an honesty bitter about the weaknesses from which it took its strength.”

It’s no surprise that Coetzee should have been disturbed by that description. His Booker Prize winning novel Disgrace is ostensibly the story of a South African university professor accused of sexual harassment. As Coetzee’s novel twists and turns through a father-daughter relationship, racial tension and a rationalising futility that can never come up with satisfying answers, it’s all too easy to see that Disgrace is marked by the same condition Coetzee took note of in Gass’s book: an honesty bitter about the weaknesses from which it takes its strength.

If Disgrace has redemptive power beyond that, it lies in the antagonist’s surrender to his fate, his belated self-recognition. This deep and terrible humility — and the detachment with which it Coetzee observes it — makes Disgrace a magnificent work. With the context of South African contemporary history set behind it like a shadow, you are drawn in as a witness to the unsettling, even cold power of a man’s genuflection into sadness.

These understandings have always led me to fear some intrinsic part of my own identity as a writer: notably, that perverse desire to be apart from the world in order to communicate with it. Even more distressing is that eternal inner struggle with honesty — as an artist and as man. How seemingly easy the former can be; how elusive the latter.

Forthrightness on the page = silence in life. That can sometimes be the equation for a writer. A commitment of that kind to one’s art is rather like dying slowly, letting oneself leak away from living and take up complete occupation on the page. And I, for one, do not like the existential gulf within that, or wish to surrender to, let alone celebrate it.

How to bridge it is the question that plagues me now.

In “Goofing Off While The Muse Recharges” (The New York Times, 8 September, 1999), Richard Ford writes about these contradictions with typically laconic wisdom. He discusses writer friends who are constantly absorbed in their working process, observing, somewhat amusingly, “as if god abhors a motionless pencil.”

Ford then talks about the idle pleasures he takes in not writing — indeed, the necessity to stop altogether for a while. He finally reflects back on the act of writing and says, “What’s most demanding is to believe in my own contrivances and to think that unknown others with time on their hands will also be persuaded. To do that, it helps a lot to know what bright allures lie just outside your room and beyond the pale of your illusion.”

Such encouraging words for his fellow writers. Such fine, human advice.

I should confess right now, however, that I am hardly the obsessed, workaholic genius steeped in a constant fever of scribbling! I will dodge the obligation of writing for as long as possible — until pressure sits upon my shoulders like the great weight of Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) and I finally bow down to the act itself.

Hopefully, there will be some burst of inspiration already outlined on the page — a rough sketch, a brilliant opening gambit, an elemental trace that might be worth following. What Michael Ondaatje so brilliantly described in the opening to his memoir Running in the Family: “the bright bone of a dream I could hardly hang onto”.

Even if there is something wonderful like that bone, it will certainly be a struggle to hold it. Writing is usually hard, slow work. An act of inspiration supported by days on end of effort and trudge, the mental toil that finally supports the lit and pulsing traffic of life that you hope to capture in a completed story.

Thus my self-imposed exile. Here, almost inevitably, I still find myself distracted, thinking about all these other ideas.

I see that what I am experiencing is a moral ache. That this ache comes out of the act of reflection and even silence itself. That this act of reflection is, of course, important for finding some temporary grace as a writer. But that grace, fully realised, comes from living and not just reflecting in isolation.

It has been a bad day today. So I make a new batch of coffee and hope to do better tonight with these jumbled thoughts and words of advice passed down to me. Outside, the dogs are barking at the moon again. I feel something in their inarticulate, wild yelps — a little of myself reaching out through words to live again. They remind me of how I miss the city and its busy heart. They remind me of how I miss my writer’s life.

- Mark Mordue

* Essay first published in Australian Author, 2002.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

M Ward - The American Friend

Matt Ward looks like a boy, much younger than his 29 years. Though he says, without too much drama and maybe just the slightest smile, "Sometimes I think I'm an old man."

The singer-songwriter who operates under the vaguely anonymous moniker of 'M. Ward' evokes those contradictorily aged and reborn qualities on all three of his solo recordings, mixing blues, folk and country influences with an offbeat and dream-ridden approach that places him deep inside the arcanum of an underground American music scene lately obsessed with categories like 'Alt Country', 'Lo-Fi' and 'Post Rock'.

In the end what these sub-genres suggest is a link between all manner of roots American music and the punk and grunge movements of more recent times - and what might best be described as a renewed quest for authenticity that encourages a romantic, even outlaw view of the artist as an experimental faux-primitive. It's no surprise Neil Young, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan are all name-checked again and again as bridging points between an aesthetically rich American musical past and this new attempt, so distinctly American and 'grass roots', to move forward into the future and build on that past, progressively, regretfully and somewhat Puritanically. One could locate this cultivation of an American voice, and the reverence beneath it, in everything from the writings of Mark Twain to the rural, history-haunted mysticism of The Band. What remains is some final sense of mystery, the American Dream at its most genuine, bound up in notions of transcendence, landscape, nationhood and common feeling, as distinguished by an often singular, if not downright dissident and perhaps prophetic voice. This is the American democratic project par excellence and it refuses to die even in such cynical times as ours.

Seeing Ward walk on stage at the Hopetoun Hotel in Sydney during his 2003 Australian tour is like watching an early Bob Dylan reconfigured for the present day, the first show a pin-drop enchantment, the second a struggle with the downbeat fragilities Ward floats and dives through like a featherweight shadowboxing with himself (it's ultimately a bit of failure). Ward's not there yet; but he has that something quality, a subdued confidence that gives off the aura of a man on his way to a date with destiny.

Meeting M. Ward afterwards there's a feeling he doesn't want to let you have too much, as if the likelihood might cause him long-term harm. This makes shaking hands with him and saying hello a little clumsy and ridiculous - 'Hi... er I'm sorry I don't know your first name?' 'It's Matt, Matt, Matt...' - while the whispery reserve that characterizes his singing and conversation calls him back to privacy whenever you edge in too close for a revealingly personal moment. I get the feeling this line of defence will intensify rather than fall away as time passes, that in some way it's good to be here now.

Ward's latest recording Transfiguration of Vincent is undoubtedly his most beautiful and defined yet despite his inclination to mix it up with so many musical ghosts, turning heads with its surprisingly classic and enduring feel, signposting all the aforementioned artists in one way or another and fitting proudly beside the best they have to offer.

A musical love letter to a friend who has passed away - as Ward puts it in the sleeve notes, "this record was designed to keep the loss alive and behind me" - Transfiguration of Vincent is a song cycle about death in the most life affirming of ways, with a powerful metaphysical current that seems to be about the power of acceptance and the nature of how you let go of pain and even give it some form of grace.

"How do you let go?" Ward repeats the words. "That's definitely a good question. Part of the initial inspiration for the record was a memorial service for John Fahey [the legendary blues artist to whom Ward's acoustic guitar playing style is most often compared]. He had lots of fellow musicians there of course, who only had a few minutes to say what they wanted to say. It's not like they have an hour or anything. And it's not an entertainment performance that's required. But all these people were playing these beautiful John Fahey's songs that brought him back into the room. It made me wonder what the memorial service for Beethoven was like? How that would have made you feel when you heard his music if you had known him?"

It was this experience along with the death of Vincent O'Brien, one of Ward's closest friends, which inspired Transfiguration of Vincent. "To celebrate and to mourn, and to hopefully have a little bit of humour to tell the whole story, these are things that should be part of a service. It seemed amusing to me to put that on a whole album. The most important thing, of course, is that your heart is in the right place when you do that. Then it all makes sense. And that's love."

Ward wont be drawn on who Vincent O'Brien was, or how he died. "The best way to answer that would be to keep it in the music," he says to me. "I'm keeping all the questions about him in the songs. It's easier to express him more precisely in music than in an interview. It's like the way it's sometimes harder to talk about God than to sing about it," he laughs. "Singing about God is easy."

Raised in southern California to an American father and a Mexican mother, he implies a musically passionate, Spanish Baptist family background before moving uncomfortably away from the subject. As a teenager Ward says he loved the music of The Smiths and Sonic Youth. "My dad turned me on to Johnny Cash and gospel. Mum preferred classical music. And my sister used to listen to KROQ-FM out of L.A. a lot, which was a pretty famous radio station [pioneering new wave music, then the early hip hop music scene]."

I mention a Kim Gordon quote to him, something she said about how we pay to see performers be free for us. Ward agrees with that notion, though he sees what he calls "the isolating effect of it. There's not many jobs like that around. I think the old story about Icarus is a good one. The boy who flew too close to the sun with wings held together by glue."

Isn't that exactly what you want to do? "No," he says. "When I think of that story I think of those members of the musical arena who seek status or who want to be looked at differently or in some higher way to those around them. But I don't look for that in music.

"It's the same though in every business, I guess," he acknowledges. "Success, especially where money is involved, changes your priorities. It scares me a little."

There's an internalized quality to Ward's live show that makes me wonder if he's nervous about performing, but he doesn't quite agree with that. He admits, nonetheless, "performing is not my first instinct. I like recording a lot. And my main passion is the instrument and learning how to play it. I feel employed by the instrument and that's a good feeling to have."

This attitude reminds me of flamenco guitarists who sometimes raise their guitars above their heads to show an audience that the applause should be for their instrument, whom they merely serve, rather than them. Ward likes the idea a lot. I suddenly see in the fresh blackness to his eyes and hair, in the looks inherited from his mother, something of those Spanish bloodlines and the corridos edge that subtly, perhaps even unconsciously, affects his musical style. Qualities that were present, if only in punkish attitude, in his first group Rodriguez, a San Luis Obispo, Californian three piece whose indie folk energy caught the attention of Granddaddy's Jason Lytle. As Ward moved towards a solo career he found another champion in Giant Sands Howe Gelb, with whom he still sometimes records.

So can you remember when you first knew you wanted to be a musician? The question amuses him. Ward says, "It's never been one of my big dreams. All the dreams I had were really layman's dreams. Like owning a house with a fireplace. Those were the kind of dreams I had rather than this is a career I want."

Married last year, it seems as if he can now have both, though Ward shyly says, "we're only renting". "Ownership isn't something I crave" he hastens to add. " But for some reason owning a house and some land appeals. I don't know why I have that dream," he says, embarrassed, "but I do."

Based now in Portland, Oregon, he admits it has had a big impact on his music. "I think understanding your place is another one of those big questions that interests me. Where do I belong? Where should I live? They're important questions. Portland is a middle-of-nowhere place, really, in the western part of America. There's a lot of things going in San Francisco [nearby], but living in a town where very little happens gives you a different perspective on the trends that come and go. It makes visiting cities more interesting, touring like I do. And it makes it nice to come home to a place that's traveling in first gear, unlike all these other places that are in fifth gear."

Right now in Sydney I see that Ward is making his way through a very fat paperback called TEXAS, its worn pages sitting beside his guitar case as we speak. I give him a copy of a book I wrote called Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip, a collection of travel stories that he gets him excited about the lines between fiction and non-fiction and where they merge. "I think that fiction sometimes tells a truer story than non fiction," he says, "but sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. A lot of memory is actually fiction, or an aggrandizement of what happened, don't you think?"

Wouldn't he say his own work, intensely personal as it, qualifies as non-fiction? "In the end I'm not sure anything can be completely non-fiction," he admits. "But I don't see my work as autobiographical. I view it much more as fiction in the sense that I put this character out there in the song and see where he stumbles."

"It's like Mark Twain says at the start of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, that it's 'mostly a true book, with some stretchers'. That's the best way of looking at non-fiction for me. I love the idea Errol Morris can make such great films about real people and it's like a Hollywood movie. Then you see someone like Mike Leigh's films, which are more like non fiction and closer to reality than what a lot of documentary makers ever achieve."

This interest in reality and unreality weaves through all through Ward's songs, along with a cinematic quality that allows you to 'see' them in your mind's eye, with a somewhat silvery, wavering tone to it all that signals both the lost and the cherished, the act of remembering as something highly conscious and apart from the experiences he summons up.

I ask him if his Baptist background had affected the spiritual nature of what he did on Transfiguration of Vincent? Ward turns his head down. "I consider myself a religious person. I have a firm belief in God. But I don't have a strict adherence to any particular religion. I'm taking baby steps in all of them," he adds.

"I'm still asking myself all those kind of questions though," he says. "I feel like music often used to ask those bigger questions. But in the last few decades people seem to have stopped asking those bigger questions, or maybe the audience for those questions has just grown smaller. I don't know. I'm not saying that's a good or bad thing. But I guess I am haunted by where I came from and where I'm going."

"Juxtaposing songs about death and love and loss and how you deal with it...." The words taper off before Ward says strongly, "You can't ignore it. It's like September 11. It doesn't seem right to ignore it. But at the same time it's not right to revenge either."

He sighs and starts to talk about George Bush before he retracts the words and says, "I don't want to get into that. My mind wasn't on September 11 when I made this record. It's much more personal. But maybe in America a lot of people are asking themselves the same kind of question: what do we do now that the loss has occurred."

- Mark Mordue

* Story first published at 12gauge.com (USA) in 2003.