How Failure Makes History (Pomona talk, 9/13/18)

“How Failure Makes History”
Rose Hills Theater, Smith Campus Centre
Pomona College, Claremont CA
13 September 2018

I was asked to talk about failure as it emerges as a basic theme in a book I wrote in 1975 called Mystery Train. The book was an attempt to hear rock ‘n’ roll not as youth culture, or what then was called counter culture, but as American culture—with a frame of reference that broad. If rock ‘n’ roll was about sex, drugs, and the open road, it was also, inevitably, about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In that book, I’d looked at the careers of five performers and one group. pyrami

Two people I called ancestors—
—the medicine show musician Harmonica Frank, who almost no one had heard of in 1975 and almost no one knows now, who first went up on a stage in the 1920s and kept at it through the 1970s—the Mississippi blues singer Robert Johnson, who was born in 1911 and murdered in 1938—
and those I called inheritors—
—The Band, four Canadians and an Arkansas drummer, who made their first album, Music from Big Pink, in 1968, but who came together as teenagers backing a rockabilly singer named Ronnie Hawkins, starting in the 1950s
—Sly and the Family Stone, a Bay Area band—a soul band, a rock ‘n’ roll band, with black musicians and white musicians, male musicians and female musicians, that emerged in 1967, though Sly Stone had been in and out of groups and making records since the fifties
Randy Newman, the sardonic singer songwriter and film music composer who too made his first album in 1968 and today still records and performs pretty much as he always has.

And Elvis Presley.

I’ll go back to that. There’s something to say about failure and some of these people—since the careers of the Band, Sly and the Family Stone, and Elvis Presley essentially ended, or died, or faded out, a year or two after the book was published. But first I want to talk about what went through my head when I was asked to talk about failure—long before any thoughts about failure and history or any ideas acting as big as that. They were just echoes, arriving without any kind of thought at all.

First there was a song by Charlie Rich, from 1973. Rich was someone who’d kicked around the record business since the mid fifties. He started on Sun Records in Memphis, then was marketed as a country singer in Nashville, but he was really a soul singer—closer to Ray Charles than Johnny Cash. Though he’d had a couple of hits—in nearly twenty years of trying—he’d reached the level of nobody. And then in 1973 he had a real hit, “Behind Closed Doors,” and suddenly he was a star.

He was playing at a record business convention in San Francisco and I went to see him: I even got an album signed. He didn’t look like a star. He was a big man who carried himself heavily; his hair was white and there were lines on his face. He was 40 and he could have been 60. He sat down at the piano. He sang “The Most Beautiful Girl,” a harmless song that soon enough would become the biggest hit of his life. And then he said, “I’d like to dedicate this next song to the president of the United States.” That was Richard Nixon, trapped by the Watergate scandal—trapped by his own lies, and just at that point where almost no one believed anything he said, on the road to impeachment, to oblivion, already a national joke. This is what he sang.“I tried and I failed”—so plain, as if only a fool could have expected it to turn out any differently.

To listen to the song that day was hard. I was raised to hate Richard Nixon. I had hated Richard Nixon since I was in first grade. And now I heard him in the wind of that song, brought down to earth, an ordinary person, who had tried and who had failed, and now had to go home, to be forgotten, to never try again. The last thing I ever wanted to feel about Richard Nixon was compassion, and now I did.

That might have been the first time I ever thought seriously about failure. I’d dropped out of graduate school—that was a failure. I had taught a seminar at Berkeley and found out I was a terrible, useless teacher—that was a failure. But this was something different. This was more like someone writing his own obituary.

Then–but really, all of these thoughts arrived at the same time—there was Richard Huelsenbeck, a Park Avenue psychoanalyst in 1974, ending his book Memoirs of a Dada Drummer: “And so as a doctor I was a success, and as a dadaist (the thing closest to my heart), I was a failure.” I first read those words in the early 1980s—I’ve wondered ever since what they could possibly mean.

Along with a few others, Huelsenbeck discovered dada—variously described as a spirit, a god, a joke, a revolution, a cosmic mistake—in a bar they named the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916—a place dedicated to what they advertised, in the paper, as “a center for artistic experimentation.” By Huelsenbeck’s own account he was acting like a madman in a nightclub in the middle of the First World War, and sneaking off to medical school at the same time:

“I couldn’t tell anybody—they would have thought I was a terrible phony and bourgeois—‘In the daytime he goes to the university and at night he makes ‘Umba Umba’”

—the line he used to close the so-called “Negro Poems” he chanted in the Cabaret Voltaire while beating on a drum. He was outrageous, he was assaultive, he was a trickster, he had no respect.

So now he’s writing his dada memoir, he’s an old man, respected by his colleagues, proud of the work he’s done, the patients he’s treated, still taking part in dada exhibitions, giving lectures on dada in Europe, in the United States, saying “interrupt me any time you want, at the Cabaret Voltaire we attacked the audience, I beat people up and was beaten up too, I still have a little of that spirit left in me, I would like you to show that spirit here tonight,” saying once, long ago, in a place far away, something happened, and we are still trying to understand what it was.

In the Cabaret Voltaire, with poems without words, with a poem recited in three different languages by three different people at the same time, a poem punctuated by Huelsenbeck singing “Everybody is doing it, doing it, doing it,” with masks and costumes, with pure noise, with violent dances, he and the five other members of the dada group—the poet and piano player Hugo Ball, the poet and singer Emmy Hennings, the poet Tristan Tzara, the painters Hans Arp and Marcel Janco, all hiding out from the war, from the draft—Huelsenbeck and the rest tried to negate all art, all speech, until humanity was brought back to zero, and had to start again. “We killed a quarter of a century, we killed several centuries, for the sake of what was to come,” he wrote. “You can call it what you like.” 

Nearly sixty years later he was still carrying the torch. He was the keeper of the flame. And he was, he was certain, a failure. In 1969, in an essay called “Leaving America for Good,” he said that he was a failure because in America he had never been able to explain to anyone what dada was—the spirit that had possessed him and a few others once upon a time. So he was going back to Switzerland, where it all began for him—maybe there, he could get it across. If he could explain it to enough people, maybe the dada revolution could begin all over again.

But really, it was personal. “I want to be a hippie again,” he said finally. “A hippie with a short haircut and a well-made suit.” If he’d lived two more years than he did he could have said “I want to be a punk again,” and it would have made even more sense. But the finality of it all:

“As a dadaist, the thing closest to my heart, I was a failure.”  I cut off my left arm, I killed myself, for the sake of what was to come, and all I became was a doctor—I tried and I failed, and I feel like going home.

Then there was a line from the second page of The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway saying, “No, Gatsby turned out all right in the end.” Right, dead face down in a swimming pool—after this man of unimaginable wealth and power has seen everything in his life come crashing down, someone who, if he’d lived past the end of the book, like everyone else in the book does, would have had no life left to live at all? What in the world is Fitzgerald talking about?

I thought of the drumming on Bob Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding—God knows why, I’d listened to it a thousand times and never had the thought—the drums on “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” “Dear Landlord,” “I am a Lonesome Hobo”—a trudging sound, the feeling of someone putting one foot in front of the other and knowing nothing could be more pointless, that there was nowhere to go and no chance you could get there even if there was—the sound of someone, if not the whole world, who had given up, and kept going like someone still feeling a leg that has already been cut off.

Which instantly brought in a scene in the movie The Last Picture Show, set in a small town in Texas in the early fifties—a waitress in a diner, saying, “I wanted to make it.” The line just hangs in the air. Nothing is made of it. Nobody asks her what she means.  She doesn’t say anything more. Does she mean get out of this nowhere town and live in a penthouse? Make enough money buy a house right here and pay my debts and not have to look over my shoulder all my life? Or just feel as if I’m someone people will treat with respect, as if I’m not just a piece of furniture? I don’t know. What the scene says to me—the tiredness of the waitress as she speaks, the way she brings the weariness of a whole life into five words—is that she always knew she’d never make it. She was born to be a failure, she was raised to be a failure, and all anybody sees when they look at her is a failure, someone who makes them think, “God, I hope I don’t end up like that.”And Neil Young, when I was interviewing him in 1993 for a cover story in Spin magazine—they’d chosen him their artist of the year, though because River Phoenix died of a heroin overdose just before the deadline, he got on the cover instead—Neil Young, once so famous that on a National Lampoon album there was a great little Public Service Announcement, “The last hour of No Neil Young Music was brought to you by”—Neil Young, now saying “I know that the sacrifice of success breeds longevity.”

In 1993 he might have been a bigger star than he’d been any other time in his career, which went back thirty years. He was certainly more respected than he’d ever been. He was probably the greatest rock ‘n’ roll guitarist on earth—Prince would be, but he might not have been yet. He was “the grandfather of grunge.” He had absolute credibility.

But in the 1980s, he’d made a series of terrible, terrible selling albums—Trans, an almost unlistenable techno record, Everybody’s Rockin’, an awful rockabilly record with a song about Ronnie and Nancy rockin’ in the White House. He’d made a boring sort of country album, Old Ways, and a mishmash called Landing on Water, a record called Life that was its own punch line, and more. It got to the point that his record company, Geffen, actually sued him for not being who he was supposed to be. They asked for damages and compensation for Young’s production of records that, to quote, “were not commercial in nature and musically uncharacteristic of Young’s previous records.”

“Make a record that sounds like you,” was how Young put it.

“For whatever reason,” he said, “I chose to disguise the music, and not reach out, do things in styles I knew would piss everybody off, so nobody would buy it or even listen to it.”

“Look,” he said, speaking of the high plateau he was on, everything he touched celebrated, money rolling in, “this’ll be history at some point too. A point where people will be saying, ‘Well, there was a time when Neil Young could have done anything—and now look at him. Can’t do shit.’ That’s down the road. I know that. But I don’t care. Because I know it’s coming. By then—who knows? Record companies may be paying millions of dollars for any one of my records, no matter what the fuck it is. Or I may not be able to get a contract. I don’t know these things. Right now, everybody thinks I’m great. But I’ve been there before.”

“It’s that old expression,” he said. “How can you miss yourself if you don’t go away.”

Which actually wasn’t the old expression. “How can you miss yourself?” I said.

“Right,” he said. “How can you find yourself if you don’t lose yourself? How can you be renewed if you don’t get old? You can’t. You have to do that. There have to be peaks and valleys. If I’ve done that, I guess it’s because I believe in that part of life, and I believe that’s the way thing are. Even if it means temporarily sacrificing success. I don’t really give a shit.”

That was what I thought of when I was asked to talk about failure.

People who reviewed Mystery Train, who wrote about it, in 1975 and after, almost always called it a celebration. One reviewer said I wrote like a cheerleader. I always thought it was a pessimistic book—and that was before 1976, when the Band played their last concert as a group of five, before Sly Stone’s career collapsed into a black hole of drugs, self-loathing, arrests, rehab, escapes, jail, disappearance, one-song comebacks, hopeless performances, over more than forty years, turning himself into a one-man Altamont, forty years of an audience waiting around for him to die. It was before Elvis Presley dropped dead in his bathroom.

So I’ll tell you a couple of stories about failure.

The Band seemed to come out of nowhere in 1968. What set them apart was the sense of unity, even community, they carried into their music—that, and at the edges of their music, a tremendous loneliness, a feeling of exile and isolation, as if nothing one said would ever make any difference. But the friendship, the trust in one another, was what you heard first.

Three and four voices rang out in “Chest Fever” and “The Weight” and “We Can Talk About It Now” on Music from Big Pink, on “Across the Great Divide” and “Rag Mama Rag,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” the next year on an album they called The Band but thought about calling America.  Voices picking up from one another, even completing each other’s lines, the voices crossed over each other until you couldn’t tell who was who and didn’t care. And this wasn’t just a style, it was an affirmation—or an argument.

In a time of division and isolation, of war and assassinations and riots of black people against the police and the National Guard all across the country and year after year—riots against the lies of the country, against the whole history of lies of the country—the sound the Band made was the sound of comradeship, a kind of tiny utopia, with different people singing “One voice for all, echoing, echoing, echoing around the hall,” and making you believe it.

And what set the Band apart was a sense of history itself. Their audience appeared instantly, as if people had been waiting all their lives for that first record—as if they recognized every story it told, the way the stories were told, as if those stories had been read to them by their parents in childhood, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The Band’s songs described people making their way through a land that was scary, seductive, beautiful, and afraid, and there was no way, as you listened, to fix the songs in time. They carried a sense of permanence, as if, listening in different moods, a given song could call up the years before the Civil War, the years after, the Great Depression, the absolute present, and most of all ways of life, of talk and gesture, that floated through the Civil War and the Great Depression and the invention of the ‘57 Chevy and the discovery of Bourbon as if those things had no power to change anything that really mattered. The sense of the past the Band carried into their music communicated as a sense of permanence, which didn’t merely mean the songs felt as if they would last forever—it meant they felt as if they already had.

“It is inconsequential to me who wrote the songs,” the literary scholar Harold Bloom wrote in 2002. “What matters is that the songs at their best seem to have always been there, until refined by the Band.”

They became perhaps the most beloved band of their time, and the most prestigious, especially among other musicians. Eric Clapton and George Harrison made pilgrimages to the Band’s houses around Woodstock, in the Catskills, asking if they could join.

Then it began to fade. The comradeship went out of the music. The singing was all solo. The music sounded made, not found. The songs seemed contrived—new songs were imitating old songs. Record sales dropped. There was an album of old rock ‘n’ roll favorites from the fifties.

In 1976 the Band played a Thanksgiving night concert in San Francisco featuring people they’d played with and befriended over the years—Muddy Waters, Ronnie Hawkins, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Dr. John, Neil Diamond, and Bob Dylan appeared, and the Band backed them all up, as if they could play anything, anywhere, at any time.

Then the guitarist Robbie Robertson, who for years had watched as the friends he grew up with began using heroin, who since their second album had written all their songs, who had convened the recording sessions, who had set up the tours, left the group, and the rest of them—the drummer and singer Levon Helm, the bassist and singer Rick Danko, the pianist and singer Richard Manuel, and the organist Garth Hudson, the millions of dollars they had made behind them, the chartered planes and limousines behind them—the rest of them scattered. They tried to find careers, to make records, to find someone else’s records to play on. Levon Helm became a movie actor, but it wasn’t enough.

Eight years after that great farewell concert, in 1984, the four of them took the name of the Band again and went on the road as an oldies act—their own oldies act. They had no record company. Everyone remembered them and no one wanted to hear them.

Everyone forgot that it was the sound of five different people creating something bigger than themselves, the sound of anonymous people finding their own voices, that had made the difference. After all, hadn’t Robbie Robertson been the genius of the group? What could they possibly be without him? So they found nightclubs and bars none of them had ever heard of and played their old songs, and they played current hits, and they took requests. People showed up and whooped and hollered or yelled at them drunk. People called out for “The Weight” and people called out for “Free Bird.” You know:

One nite only
The BAND (“The Weight”)
Free pizza before six

In America, failure is pain, poverty, anonymity, stasis, inertia, limits, prison or the prison of everyday life where nothing ever changes, but most of all failure is shame. “I tried and I failed, and I feel like going home”—but what if home is just another place where you have to look in the mirror? What if home is just a place full of empty pizza boxes?

They made albums no one heard on labels no one had ever heard of. One was Pyramid Records—their other big act was Roger Clinton, Bill Clinton’s doper brother. They covered Bruce Springsteen. They covered En Vogue.

They played out a drama of shame. I remember coming across a version of it in New Orleans, walking down Decatur Street, seeing a sign for “Levon Helm’s Classic American Café.” The place had closed months before, but there was still a poster in the window with the word “BAND” in big letters and a schedule of all the people Levon was supposed to play with every night—“Levon Helm’s Classic Blues Band,” “Levon Helm and the Barn Burners”—and a menu, with all the dishes named after Band songs, like “Up on Cripple Creek Seafood” and “King Harvest Has Surely Come Salads.”

In 1986, after a show in Winter Park, Florida, at a place called the Cheek to Cheek Lounge—just imagine yourself, someone who had played the Hollywood Bowl, the New York Academy of Music, who had played all over the country and all over the world, walking into a place called the Cheek to Cheek Lounge, and just saying the words over and over to yourself—after the Band’s show at the Cheek to Cheek Lounge, Richard Manuel went next door to his motel, wrapped his belt around the shower head, and hung himself.

Now, everyone knows you can never know why someone commits suicide. There can be a dozen reasons, all fighting over the body. I hate myself. They’ll be better off without me. This’ll show them. I can’t stand one more night without sleep. I can’t stand one more night wondering if I’ll ever wake up. But really—the Cheek to Cheek Lounge. Do you need anything else?

Two years later, a writer named Ron Horning wrote a story called “The Last Moving Shadow of Richard Manuel.” It opened in Manuel’s voice, then switched to a police detective mode, running over half a dozen explanations for Manuel’s death: burned drug dealers sending a message to the other guys. Or an accident with a drunken friend, the two of them showing off how long they can hold their breath and uh-oh, better get out of here. Or a robbery and a cover-up. Or even auto-erotic asphyxiation. But the most painful moment comes at the start, with Manuel trapped in that vault of shame, talking about where his life had taken him:

“I remembered how we had tried to tell true stories, and how close we came sometimes, and I felt so proud. We were lucky, sure, but only because we were good; I can still hear how good on the records… No one will ever play our stuff better than we do, but now the music seems as canned as Rick’s line about the bar reminding him of my living room… We’re exploiting a terrific past, and you can’t do that without wrecking the future… You expect to be successful forever, that’s part of the high, and everybody else expects you to be successful forever, too. That’s part of their high.”

But the fact is that people pay to see failure and to feel superior to it—that’s what the Band was playing for in the Cheek to Cheek Lounge. So Ron Horning’s version of Richard Manuel thinks it’s all over—but in the story, that’s just a set-up for a memory that sums it all up, the failure of being unable to make yourself clear, to get anyone to understand you, to feel as if you’ve outlived yourself, that you might as well be dead. Horning has Manuel remember playing with groups around Woodstock after the Band broke up, before they tried to use the name again.

“A guitar player from one of the local college bands had dropped by, and while we talked in the living room, ‘Twistin’ the Night Away’ came on the kitchen radio. Sam Cooke’s voice knocked me out, the way it slipped and slid and never lost balance, so when the conversation slowed down I pointed to the door: ‘Isn’t he great?’”

“The kid nodded impatiently. ‘The Who opened for Sam Cooke at my school in 1967.’”
“‘Sam Cooke was dead in 1967,’ I said. “A woman shot him at a motel in ’64. Do you mean Sam and Dave?’”
“He squinted back, saying yes and meaning no.
“‘The Sam of Sam and Dave isn’t Sam Cooke,’” I added, listening as intently as a detective listens for the first time to last night’s tape.
“The kid’s eyes were slits. He looked like a pig.
“‘You know more rock and roll trivia than I do,’” he said at last, slowly. It was my turn to stare at him.
“‘Who says it’s trivia?’”

Everybody else.

Rick Danko became grossly overweight. He played worse bars than the Cheek to Cheek Lounge all over upstate New York. Playing a show in Japan, he was imprisoned after the police intercepted a package of heroin his wife had sent him. People came to see the junkie. He died of a heart attack, if it wasn’t an overdose, in 1999—and you can, I think, hear everything that was lost in a performance at a bar in Portland, Oregon, in 1983, with Levon Helm, even before the Band tried that second time.

It’s a song from the Band’s 1975 album Northern Lights Southern Cross. It was a distinctive song there. Here it’s more than that. It’s an absolute proof of what Harold Bloom, when he was writing about the Band, called the American religion of loneliness—the belief that in America no one can be really free unless he or she is alone, and this was the song, he said, that caught that feeling, that faith, most completely.The music that made the name of Sly and the Family Stone was an explosion of exuberance, the thrill of people finding their own voices, a thrill carrying the message, no words needed, though the words were there, that you could find your own voice, too—that you had to.

The music was noisy, the rhythms all upheaval and unpredictability, the songs built around slogans that turned into little dramas where you weren’t sure how they would turn out—even though, like watching a movie where you grit your teeth for the tension, you know there’s a happy ending. Each of their best songs was its own little utopia, no problems without solutions, optimism its own reward: the songs “Stand,” “Everybody Is a Star,” “You Can Make It If You Try,” even “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey (Don’t Call Me Whitey, Nigger).”  “Different strokes for different folks,” they sang in “Everyday People”—when Sly shouted, “I am everyday people”—and it was the biggest “I” in the world—it felt like he was wrapping his arms around everyone who might every hear him.

Then at the end of 1971 came an album called There’s a Riot Goin’ On. The title cut was blank. The front cover was an American flag with flowers instead of stars. On the back there was a collage of happy-face pictures of band members, with a picture of Lincoln in his memorial and a broken quote from the Gettysburg Address cut in: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here; it can never for—what—”

The whole album was a breakdown, a long night of fear, a portrait of a person, a group, and a nation in complete collapse. The music at its best, at its most powerful, felt steps away from death. Guitar lines, quiet, ghostly, wrapped around vocals like snakes. The songs sounded as if they were being delivered from a locked room—sometimes locked from the outside, sometimes from the inside.

Sly and the Family Stone were the biggest band in the country, and they were releasing the most absolute no many people had ever heard.

Reviewers wrote the album off as junkie fever, as solipsism, as insanity.

In the years after There’s a Riot Goin’ On appeared, after the band dissolved, and Sly Stone disappeared again and again, as if he was a figment of some common imagination, some kind of bad dream, a bad conscience who would not do the world the favor of dying, he sometimes tried to explain, like Richard Huelsenbeck tried to explain, but nobody listened. You can hear that in the moment, from live recordings, as he once spoke from the stage—or you can hear him decades later, huddled in an old parka, as if he were always cold, looking as if he had been taken from the streets into a clean room to be interviewed, looking as if he wasn’t sure what to do there, as he speaks with simple, pure lucidity.

“What was your goal?” he was asked six years ago, forty years after he effectively negated his career.

“Make people get along,” he said. “And I thought maybe if I had… black people, white people, girls, all that, and we’re playing, and we’re having a good time, the audience would just have to get in there. There’s no way around it. Like that—and I thought I was right.”

It can be heartbreaking to hear something so plain, knowing the ruin that followed. But in some ways, to listen to Sly Stone on the stage at the Isle of Wight Festival in August of 1970, more than a year before There’s a Riot Goin’ On would appear, but with the cloud it cast over the country already gathering, is even harder to take.

It’s as if he has already seen the end—all the way to the end. He has, so queerly, already historicized the life he and his audience have lived, already declared it finished, an exhibit in a museum no one will ever visit. It’s 1970, and he’s speaking of “The Sixties” as if they were the twenties. It was seven in the morning. Sly and the Family Stone were closing a night, following the Doors, Miles Davis, and the Who.

He is introducing “Stand!”—the song with the exclamation point at the end. “Stand!,” he will sing in a moment. “Stand! For the things you know are right/It’s the truth that the truth makes them so uptight/Stand!/All the things you want are real.”

“A lot of things happened in the sixties,” he says at the Isle of Wight. “A of people stood in the sixties. A lot of people went down in the sixties—for standing. That’s unfair”–

–and then in a cool, clear voice he began to sing, unaccompanied, by himself, as if to say, I know no one will ever take a stand again. I won’t. You won’t.

He went on to a nowhere so borderless the word failure can hardly enclose it. The Band, as they called themselves in the 1980s and ’90s, until Levon Helm and Garth Hudson finally gave up the name after Rick Danko died, played out a failure that was more commonplace, more ordinary, more anybody’s. How does that make history?

“You expect to be successful forever… everybody else expects you to be successful forever, too.” 

If, like Bob Dylan, or for that matter Randy Newman, the Band and Sly and the Family Stone had gone on to long careers, careers where their audiences turned into generations and inspiration never ran dry, then Music from Big Pink, The Band, and There’s a Riot Goin’ On would be incidents in a self-justifying story.

But instead those albums, those sets of songs and performances, those works of art, remained singular—not incidents, but heroic, tragic events that exist like dares to both audiences and other artists—musicians, but also novelists, filmmakers, poets, painters, for that matter politicians, accountants, hair cutters, dope dealers, real estate agents, anyone—a dare that says, Can you go this far? Can you risk creating something you can never match, that you can never live up to?

They left behind talismans of what it means to change your world, to leave behind a standard that will spark other people for lifetimes—even if the price is that it will leave you stranded at best and dead, rotting even before you die, at worst.

Music from Big Pink and There’s a Riot Goin’ On made history, rather than merely reflecting it—reflecting someone else’s history. They gathered up the moods of their times, and then set themselves against shibboleths of their times, what we would now call the narratives of their times—the false, constructed stories meant to advance a certain view of the world that leads to certain outcomes and excludes others—they set themselves against that, and created something so strong that it couldn’t be comfortably slotted in, something so strong it changed the story itself—right away, as with Music from Big Pink, and over many years, as with There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

Those works of art did not so much account for their times as they forced the times to account for them.

No one has ever really done that, and no one ever will. Unlike careers, or even lives, the stories told in those records are stories without endings, as it is with any work of art. You go back to them, or they catch up with you. They make history, but really, finally, it’s more than that. Like the Gettysburg Address flaking off on the sleeve of There’s a Riot Goin On—the Gettysburg Address, a strategic, political act in the middle of a war, but also a work of art—they are history.

As for Richard Huelsenbeck, he spent his life trying to explain that, in his way, he had done the same—he had left behind a work of art, a collective work of art that exists not as objects you can touch but as a story. He spent his life trying to convince people that what had happened to him could happen to anyone: that in a small, enclosed space, like a nightclub, if it was the right place, and the right time, you could raise spirits that would change you and everyone around you, and you could send that spirit out into the world, and people would grasp for it as if it were a magic potion. It was, he kept saying—and he was right.

But as arrogant as he was onstage as a twenty-something medical student in the Cabaret Voltaire, at the end of his life, his arrogance was that he could live without being sure of anything: refusing to be sure of anything was dada if anything was. So he was leaving America for good, he said, at 77 he was going back to the source—but someday, he said, looking at the mountains surrounding his house in Switzerland, “one day I shall rush to the station, buy a ticket, and go back to New York. I shall salute the Statue of Liberty with a melancholic smile, but I think I will then understand that liberty really never existed anywhere.”

He did go back to New York; he stood up in a lecture hall and shouted “Umba Umba” and dared the students and professors who had come to hear him to be as brave as he was. I’d have loved to have been there, to go up to him afterwards and say, “Do you still think you’re a failure?” I have no idea what he would have said.

Related Reading
Failure isn’t an option, it’s inevitable, writer Greil Marcus says (David Allen, Daily Bulletin)
— Greil Marcus On Failure, Nixon, And Coming Home (Blake Plante, The Student Life)
— Greil Marcus Talks Failing, Rock and Roll, and Being Human (Ali Bush 19, Scripps Voice)

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