some thoughts on "Llewyn Davis"

By Robbie on March 19, 2014

Since learning that my cat-astrophe of last week, recounted on my daily travelogue, spookily recapitulated an event from the beginning of Inside Llewyn Davis, I decided to catch up with the movie. I'd meant to see it upon release, but it seemed to come and go in rather a flash, and some of the rumbling and downbeat scuttlebutt going around might have dulled my intent. Christine Lavin "hated" it, for portraying a cool and colorful performer, her friend Dave Van Ronk, as a "doofus." Suzanne Vega disliked its compression of the Village folk scene from a multihued vibrancy to a "slow brown sad movie" -- great phrase, and a decently fair description, though "brown" only applies to the neurasthenic emotion of much of the film, which boasts a strongly heightened visual palette. A filmmaker acquaintance suggested to me that I avoid Llewyn because, as he saw it, one more Coen movie with a go-nowhere signify-nothing narrative that justified itself by brazen reference to the Ulysses myth didn't deserve anyone's time or support.

I understand completely that if you knew Van Ronk well (I worked with and dealt with him a few times, happily, but certainly didn't know him well) you'd bristle at an unlikeable character that is based to some acknowledged extent on him, and that if you were a member of the 1960s New York folk scare (in its last throes as I reached Gerdes in 1980) and brought expectations that the film would dramatize that episode and environment, even apotheosize its leading lights, well, you would be bereft. I think what the Coens were up to, with their use of Mayor of Macdougal Street, was taking a few threads and weaving what they wanted to, and I think that's indisputably legitimate. The Glenn Miller Story has its virtues, but this is something else in intent and effect, and I would much rather have seen this non-cheerleading treatment than a celebration of the scene.

The go-nowhere, gratuitously mythogenic criticism is I think a stronger criticism. Directly after the movie ended I felt uncertain about the experience, tepid even. It's not really about plot and has a minimum of character development. But the ideas stayed with me afterward, and to me the film seems most valuable for dramatizing a few propositions that are both reality-based and unpleasant (or antisentimental is perhaps better).

1. Artistic talent doesn't correlate with any other virtue. The protagonist, Llewyn, is candid and intelligent, and his face amusingly records indignation and skepticism, but that's about all you can say on his behalf, besides that every time he picks up a weatherbeaten Gibson and opens his mouth, beautiful sounds issue forth. He manipulates and insults and irritates his family, friends, and lovers. He's selfish, unremorseful, and unreflective. He contributes little tangibly to society but recordings and aborted fetuses. He's largely a cipher. This characterization is doubtless slanderous to good old Dave Van Ronk, but it nails some singer-songwriters, painters, and actors whose names we can all think of without working hard.

2. Most people who get into the business of performing and recording music are brief temporary workers. (Truer then than in the present day, when 20-year-long careers aren't nearly as much of a novelty.) Llewyn's colleagues and competitors are an Army recruit, a woman on her way to a cheerfully anticipated housewifedom, a mountain lady with autoharp, a conditionally skilled flash-in-the-pan (among others) played by Justin Timberlake. All of them except the mountain lady are eager to fit in, make their mark, get their jollies, and take away what fairy-dust they can. Then they graduate to normalcy, after a few years. You can't sleep on couches into senescence; as a song whose writer I can't remember says, "you can't make a living on a song and a prayer."

3. The gatekeepers of the music industry -- club promoters, producers, managers, union reps, agents, label honchos -- are of a starkly different ilk from the performers: a generation older, unidealistic, and with no particular sympathy to or understanding of artistic talent as an isolated quality. I'm not certain how much or how little that has changed since the period of the film. Llewyn's attempts to negotiate and communicate with these people -- most especially F. Murray Abraham's Mitch Miller-esque impresario character! -- are deeply hilarious. Abraham's character advises him to reunite with a partner who has killed himself, and also discloses his affection for another folksinger who dresses nicely and is aggressively inartistic. Bullseye. But, to look at it from these characters' perspective, why should they be concerned with a musician who, sitting in a room with voice and guitar, sounds better than the competition, even if they did register Llewyn's superiority? Their job is to satisfy audience demand, or to protect and fatten their own particular institution. What's more, for every lavishly gifted artist in the music industry, there are 100 others with nonmusical gifts -- anything from closing a deal to wiping a tabletop -- and 400 more with no clear gifts at all, only well-intentioned and with families to feed. By what law should the whole house be torn down and rebuilt for the benefit of one jackass who sings and plays great? An interesting question.

I appreciate how Llewyn Davis reminds us (even if it doesn't capture the entire world of the Village folkies as they experienced it) of the uncertainties of a place and time before history flattens them into a digestible tale with a direction home. We tend to think of Bob Dylan, Van Ronk, and Phil Ochs as natural giants, of their paths as predestined, of their talents as unmissable, of the Village clubs as gravitationally distorted by the presences of these bright stars. But in the period of the film, the Kingston Trio were the commercial pacesetters, a lot of snobs ranked Aunt Molly Jackson over any scruffy amateur tunesmith, and Bob Dylan was hustling to be heard amid Carolyn Hester and the New Lost City Ramblers and so many others. Folk revivalism, like rock-and-roll a few years before, looked like a short specific commercial event, and so, arguably, it was. Jazz snobs (John Goodman's character) and music businessmen had no reason to be loyal to or respectful of it. Into this present-tense world walks a distinguished, not-altogether-shrewd artist and...what happens? This, rather than plot as usually understood, seems to me the animating set-up. What happens then? Frustration, miscues, and incredulity all around. Llewyn acts as though the world owes someone who is as good as he is...something...and we in the audience, steeped in stereotypes and the conventional categories of recent cultural history, instinctively agree that he is, and are unhappily surprised that no one else can hear this music that we can. But, on second thought, we probably shouldn't be surprised. If you sing and play well for some friends, and also lose their cat, it's the latter act that will leave a stronger impression. If you sing and play something that fits into no established category, paying no attention to what an audience has scientifically demonstrated it wants to hear, who is going to line up at your doorstep? Nobody owes you anything, and there's no justice.

I'm not convinced that the over-the-top production design had a strong, necessary relation to the action or the intellectual content of the movie. Why not a grittier documentary look? Maybe there's already enough of that -- Barbara Loden's fantastic Wanda, Stranger Than Paradise, Buffalo 66, and others take a rawer punker approach to confused persons of interest drifting through an indifferent landscape. But I was impressed by the thorny, and, in my experience at least, true-feeling conflicts the movie barreled into head-on.

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set your DVRs

By Robbie on March 17, 2014

The boys and I are on the Carson Daly show, playing "Where I Fell" and "Cigarette State." Alas with all the Austin-based frenzy of the week I didn't get around to working with the music editor on the mix, so I'm not sure if the quality of what's going to air is going to be equal to our last Daly appearance. But let's see.

Also, no Hideout tonight.

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-- and this --

By Robbie on March 7, 2014

Jon Langford and I were at the Bloodshot office the other week and for some reason we sang "Yesterday's Wine" and "I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool" into a camera:

My complete schedule at South by Southwest the coming week is: Tuesday, trade show 1PM; Wednesday, Continental Club 9PM; Thursday, Broken Spoke 4PM; Friday, Yard Dog 12:45PM; Saturday, Brooklyn Country Cantina 2PM. The bookend shows are solo and the others are acoustic quartet (Raines, Cobb, Gjersoe).

Robbie Gjersoe, Jenny Scheinman, Alex Hall, Beau Sample, and I recorded a take on Paul McCartney's 1974 country hit, "Sally G," for release on a WFMU fundraiser. See a hilarious promo vid Mike Shelley made, here: Great station, great on-air talent, fully worthy of your support.

I just booked a Prairie Home Companion for June, and I'll give more details soon, as they emerge.

If you're in Chicago on March 23 and interested in seeing me (and my group) in an intimate house concert sitch:

Speaking of house concerts and the like, I'd be happy to hear from any U.K.'ers who want to have me in August while I'm on the island. Club promoters too. After my stint with the Mekons is over I'll have some flexibility to float around for a few days, in case there's anything productive to do, and I don't get over there often, so...drop Robbie a line. I'm always here.

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forward march!

By Robbie on March 4, 2014

A little housecleaning before I disappear into the wilds of Austin, TX for some kind of musico-pathological convivium...

New dates. I just posted some, take a look. (I'm pushing for "take a look" as the new, uppity person's version of "check it out.")

Stray Birds. I was cameoing for my friend Jodee Lewis the other night at Old Town, and the openers, a fiddle/bass fiddle/utility-but-mainly-flattop-guitar trio, were notably terrific. Take a look! I was so impressed I bought a record; but I found it less persuasive than the live experience, which makes unignorable their playing prowess, vocal blend, and enthusiasm. They used a Neumann KM184 on the guitar and a DPA 4099 on the fiddle, and had no onstage monitoring -- a solid and smart blueprint for a good listening experience from both sides of the footlights. I'm a fan of the Stray Birds!

South by Southwest. A couple people asked me at the Doc Watson blowout last night where in particular I was going to be this week coming up. For now: Continental Wednesday, Broken Spoke Thursday, Yard Dog Friday. Those three are with Shad Cobb, Missy Raines, and Robbie Gjersoe. I'll be playing more shows down there alone, and I'll post a full layout of my Austin schedule shortly.

Next record. During these ridiculously cold months I've been working on songs for my next one. In fact I'm just about to disappear into a hotel in Glenview for a couple days to try and get some intensive woodshedding done. I've got plenty of new songs written, but I don't have anything like a stylistically consistent dozen -- maybe not even a good dozen, yet -- and the best ones don't seem to follow logically from Gone Away Backward, which it's my hope to accomplish. Previously I haven't worried about consistency with the previous record. If anything, I focused on contrast over consistency; but with this one I'd like to continue on with a musical sound and lyrical perspective that both I and the reviewers felt good about. So I'll have to save these nice songs begging for drumkits, Philharmonic backing, and comic space alien narrators for another day, and try to keep my head firmly in the land of banjos and senseless murders.

Side projects. Man, I've got some exciting long-term projects underway, but since most of these things seem to wither in time, and it seems both bad form and bad luck to publicize far-off, in-progress things, I won't say more. So why say even this much? Because I'd like everyone to know that, as 2014 winds on and I get out to perform less, I'm not sitting idle at the manse. I'm doing exciting things that I refuse to speak to you about.

8K run. On the 30th I'll be participating in the Shamrock race in Chicago. This is a modest bit of an undertaking for me: being an above-averagely fit but definitely unathletic 50-year-old (jeez, 51 by racing day), someone who runs daily but only 3 miles on an indoor treadmill, I need to train. If anyone knows all about running, I'd appreciate any tips. My self-invented regimen, which I've been at for a week, is to run 5 miles twice a week, my regular 3 for four days, and one day of rest. I do my 3 miles in 30 minutes, and the two 5's I've run I've gone at a faster clip, finishing in 40. I'm in the 6-mile-an-hour group so I think I'm safe from both false heroics and death-by-trampling. Next week while I'm in Texas I plan to start running outdoors, which I haven't done in ages (I like the efficiency of taking in some news and popular music while on the treadmill). So that's my profile, in case you have any bright ideas that could steer me better. I've been sore all week, but not too sore to work out...I think that is a good place to be. But what do I know about the world of, as Mitt Romney says, sport? I mean, take a look at me!

Carson Daly. My next appearance on that show is March 17 (technically the early morning of Tuesday the 18th). Set your thingamajigs.

Books. I'm currently reading Days of Fire by Peter Baker, The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie, and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by the great Javier Marias.

Records/discs/non-physical thingamajigs. I'm enjoying Paul Carrack's new one, Rain or Shine; collections of Georgie Fame and Nervous Norvis; Bear Family's Merle Travis box, titled Guitar Rags and a Too Fast Past; Paul Bley's Improvisie; a good-sounding board recording of NRBQ in 1973 (with both Anderson and Ferguson) that someone in Atlanta nicely gave me (thanks!); Watson/Grisman's Doc and Dawg; Takeshi Terauchi's Nippon Guitars; and John Sieger's and Greg Koch's A Walk in the Park.

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this monday at the hideout

By Robbie on February 28, 2014

I Heart Doc Watson! And who doesn't? A night of "Way Downtown" and "Coo Coo Bird" and "Tennessee Stud" and suchlike, by me and Gjersoe and Steve Doyle.

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