Llewyn Davis and the Search for Authenticity

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Not long after moving here in 1988 I answered a tantalizing ad I used to see every week in the Village Voice placed by none other than Dave Van Ronk. Anyone steeped in Dylan lore knows the name well; Van Ronk Loomed Large in the Latter’s Legend; he figures big in all of Dylan’s biographies. In fact in my first attempt to flee the nest about four years earlier I had carried in my pocket on the train to New York a dog eared paperback of Anthony Scaduto’s Dylan book and Van Ronk was all through that thing.

At any rate, it turns out that Van Ronk gave blues and rag fingerpicking lessons and I wanted to learn that sort of thing (I was in the midst of working on Universal Rundle), so I called the number in the ad and was flabbergasted when the man himself picked up after a ring or two. “You answer your own phone?” I stammered. “Well…yeah!” he answered as though it were the most natural thing in the world, which it was. I don’t know what I pictured but I guess I figured a guy that famous had, you know, an entourage, or at least one flunkie to pick the phone up when it rang. And it’s not an unreasonable expectation. After all even Joe Franklin has that. But Van Ronk was a folkie, and they are kind of famous for being non-hierarchical (some of them anyway). But that was the first of many lessons I’ve had since about the fact that fame and wealth don’t always go hand in hand.

I couldn’t afford what Van Ronk was charging ($60 for a half hour or something like that) so I didn’t take the potentially historical lessons, and though the thought of meeting him is thrilling, I don’t really have any regrets. I enjoy playing the guitar but I’m not $60-a-half-hour serious about it. So I looked up another dude who ran a similar ad. This was up in Queens. I had something very specific I wanted to learn, an aspect you hear in the country blues (mostly Delta blues) music of players like Robert Johnson — a ragged irregularity in the picking patterns. Almost nobody modern seems to get what I’m talking about, and when I hear most professionals play (or try to play) in that style, it always seems excessively regular and polished. While they often seem to master the complexity of the thing (e.g. bass notes and melody lines happening at the same time), the musicians tend to reduce it to a regularity it never historically possessed. They may have the right notes, they have absolutely the wrong feel. Even Van Ronk, a protege of Reverend Gary Davis, doesn’t quite sound like he has that quality in his playing. Early jazz, blues, ragtime, etc were universally put down for having this quality when they were introduced: the music was called untutored, amateurish, ignorant, “noise”. The pressure has eternally been on to clean it up, make it pretty, put a bow on it, to placate the sensibilities of the masses who like things sweet and comforting and knowable. At any rate, this guy in Queens couldn’t give me what I wanted either. The only thing that was authentic about him was that he’d sponged off his wife for a year so he could practice his guitar all day and learn these patterns. And patterns they remained. I suppose I could have learned something from him but the situation gave me the willies so I dropped him after one class.

Music is culture. For some people it is a diversion; for others it is a battleground. I’m afraid my own inclinations have tended toward the latter. I think I occasionally perplex some people, and have even hurt some of their feelings, when they have come up against my antipathy toward contemporary musical theatre, for example. They are surprised that someone who loves vaudeville, tin pan alley, ragtime and the Broadway of yore has no use for (much or most of) the Broadway of the last half century or more. But I can tell you what the issue is, unequivocally. It has to do with the distance that kind of art has from the richness of the culture of the people at the bottom. Older generations were closer to it. Even Gerwshin’s orchestral masterpieces draw from the blues. Since the 1940s or so, American musical theatre has been about the tastes and needs of businessmen. (Don’t annoy me by protesting that you’re not a businessman. If you can’t grok a metaphor, I take that as ironclad and Euclidean proof of my point).

As a kid, I probably enjoyed what few modern musicals I knew (e.g. Oliver!, The Sound of Music) but by the time I was in my late teens I was becoming far more deeply attached to music that seemed to possess other values. I can trace my interest in folk to three sources. My half-brother Larr was a blues musician whose best credit was as the drummer in a trio with guitarist Duke Robillard. In the late 60s and early 70s Larr had palled around with Patrick Sky (a close friend and collaborator of Van Ronk’s) who lived in my home town for 20 years with his wife Cathy, who ran the Post and Beam Coffeehouse. As I mentioned here a couple of months ago, it was also Larr who hooked me up with the trad player Michael Shorrock (a friend and collaborator of Sky’s and another Van Ronk cohort Tom Paxton) who became my boss and mentor during the summer of 1986.  Then there was my dad, who’d grown up sharecropping in Tennessee during the Depression. From him I inherited rural and traditional values and tastes. He sang to me from a book of folk and cowboy songs when I was small and got me my first guitar and a harmonica.  There were many bluegrass records to listen to in our house, but he also had a liking for more mainstream folk music so there was also Burl Ives, the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, and the New Christy Minstrels. And lastly my best buddy Matt’s parents were both obsessively into Dylan, so we not only played all of his records, but also re-issues of Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and the like.

And what to do with these inclinations? Contemporary folk was still around when I was a kid but only at the fringes, about like it is now. I longed for some sixties-like movement to take part in and I truly despised 95% of the drivel that was then on the pop charts. For a couple of years, punk seemed like it. In 1981 or 1982, our friend Colin returned from Detroit, where he’d gone to live for a couple of years. Kind of a mousey guy, he’d come back sporting a mohawk, a safety pin through the earlobe, and a black leather motorcycle jacket. He was the only one in our entire school who looked anything like that. One time, he took a piss on the newly-polished school floor, and after we were done gasping, we just laughed.  For a year or two I tagged around with him and another friend Alex and we had a band called the Happy Machines. But hardcore punk was never exactly my thing, and although I listened to the Sex Pistols, the Dead Kennedys and the Damned with those guys socially, I was much more attached to the earlier garage rock that had inspired punk. There was some crossover. We all liked to listen to Nuggets. But I more or less JUST wanted to listen to Nuggets. 

Interestingly, you can hear a lot of folk influence in a lot of the garage groups. You don’t believe me? Here’s a prime example: In Laugh, Laugh by the Beau Brummels, there’s that bitter-sounding lyrical content, that haunting, eerie-sounding melody, the cowboy harmonica sound, and the Peter, Paul and Mary style harmonies on the chorus:

At any rate, the long and the short of it is that I like the Beau Brummels, and I really wouldn’t care if every CD of Phantom of the Opera melted in a fire. And I know a zillion theatre people who feel this way (or similarly). And a zillion theatre people who don’t. I guess these poles exist in every art form.

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That’s pretty much the plot of Inside Llewyn Davis — a guy with his own idea of integrity vs. the sell-outs.

First let me clear up a widespread misconception. Despite the producer’s interesting claim that the film is “inspired by” Van Ronk’s memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street (hammered in the credits, all their publicity and even on reprints of the book), the movie takes almost nothing, I mean NOTHING, from the book. I mean plot points, story details, anecdotes, character traits — NOTHING. Other than the fact that it concerns a folk singer who has been a sometime merchant marine, the entire script comes from the imagination of the Coen Brothers. Which is beyond fine, it’s awesome, they’re among my favorite film-makers, but nobody should be spreading the impression (as they well and truly are) that this movie has anything to do with Van Ronk.

Consider the title of Van Ronk’s book. The Mayor of MacDougal Street. He didn’t name himself that; New York Times critic Bob Shelton did, because that it is what Van Ronk was generally regarded to be by the community. He was large and gregarious, a lovable bear of a man, with a million friends. He was a folk purist, but there was an army of folk purists  around at the time. He was a popular guy both onstage and off; widely admired both as a singer and a musician, he recorded 19 studio albums in his lifetime, and he was THE man Bob Dylan attached himself to when he came to New York because he was THE man in the Village folk scene.

By contrast, Llewyn Davis is a puny loser, as lonely and unloved as a stepchild in a blues song. The inspiration for the character seems much more lifted from Dylan, and the romance about Dylan, than Van Ronk. It appears to be inspired more by the famous cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, a scruffy dude without a coat on the streets of New York during one of the worst winters of the 20th century. Like Dylan was in his early years, Llewyn Davis is essentially homeless, a connoisseur of other people’s couches, with no money in his pocket, no ties, and no place to be. But here Davis is demonized as an “asshole” and a fuck-up. In reality the scene as described by Von Ronk and everyone else was one in which EVERYONE, or at least a large proportion of them, were in the same boat. They pooled together their resources and took turns helping each other out, and most of all spent large amounts of time together, in happy groups, partying, jamming, talking, and so forth. To be alone and without a friend in the world, spit on, with two unmarried girls knocked up — that’s a blues lyric. It’s romance. 

So this is about something else other than the time and place that it is selling so heavily. Let us say it takes place in an alternate folk scene in some fictional universe in some other dimension. Or maybe (and the Coen Brothers are truly brilliant if this is their intentional aesthetic strategy) they have organized the movie to be LIKE those commercial folk acts (Kingston Trio; Peter Paul & Mary) who get a good bit of nose tweaking in the film. Like those acts, the film has some RELATIONSHIP to the real folk scene, is “inspired” by it, it is “about” it without being “of” it.  The part that spoils it for me, that makes it confusing is that the fictional Davis’s music sounds just as boring, insipid and phony to me (or nearly) as that of squeaky clean pretty people — kind of hard to tell them apart. This is even despite the fact that most of the songs  in the film performed by Oscar Isaac (as Davis) are  from Van Ronk’s own repertoire; it’s the film’s most conspicuous link to him. Yet listen to Van Ronk’s original version of “Hang Me, O Hang Me” a tune that gets a lot of play in the film. By contrast with Isaac’s version it is roughhewn and raspy, the vocal phrasing vastly more varied and expressive and bluesy. There aint nothing of THAT quality in the film NOWHERE.

Why? Concessions to popular tastes and refined ears, I guess. T-Bone Burnett is musical director and I’ll not gainsay THOSE credentials, but it’s always a job of work capturing the sounds of 50 years ago even if (maybe especially if) you were there. It’s like those movies from the 1940s that are supposed to be set in the ragtime era, except everything still comes out sounding like swing. You’re breathing your own atmosphere. Anyway, this music sounded all wrong to me and the selections were big crashing bores to boot.

And maybe that was the point. After all, Llewyn Davis is supposed to be a failure. He’s contrary to the point of self destruction. This is another area where the character differs from the real-life Van Ronk. Van Ronk did stick to his guns, but he did try to please people and he did want them to like him and he didn’t mind earning some money if he could do it without too much whitewash, and he did enjoy a reasonable amount of success throughout his life. Davis just pushes everybody away and blows every opportunity. When the film ends (before the big huge folk boom that would explode a few months later), it looks as though he’s bound for either suicide or retirement from the music business, which are in essence the same thing.

Another way in which this film echoes or seems to echo the phonies is that for most of the film’s running time, though we are engrossed in folk music, we are given no context for what this music is, where it comes from, or why anyone would want to play it. But this too may be intentional. For the Coens eventually present that as a reveal, when a singer from rural Arkansas takes the stage with her autoharp. Llewyn drunkenly insults her (although his anger is really directed at a sleazy club owner) and deservedly gets his ass kicked by her husband. Davis, like so many in the folk music business, is in this limbo land: has no truck with the Clydes, and the Real McCoys want no truck with him. Unless you were born and raised in some undiscovered holler back of Shangri-La somewhere with No Boats, No Lights, No Motorcar, the search for purity is always going to be to one degree or another elusive and ultimately fruitless. You and me, we’re already a few generations out of the robot factory. Dylan’s advice is the same God gave to Lot: “Don’t Look Back”. For some of us, though, it’s too late. We’re already froze in that position.

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One Response to “Llewyn Davis and the Search for Authenticity”

  1. […] months I’ve felt like I was really beginning to understand the ideological underpinnings of the American folk movement of the mid-twentieth century for the first time, and WHY there was such an uproar and feelings of betrayal when Dylan went […]

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