Pete's Blog

Achievement and its Discontents

Rod MacDonald (a good friend who was an eminence on the Greenwich Village scene when I was a rookie) once described me as "an overwhelming performer." I took it, as I take most things in life, as praise. But, while it's not an unkind thing to say by any means, typical of sly Rod, it's very much a nuanced remark, and certainly more useful and instructive for it. It's true. My approach as a performer has always been, if not to "overwhelm" exactly, at the very least to impress. I've talked a lot over the years, in this space and others, about great artists "stretching our sense of what's possible" and that's all well and good. I've always wanted people to respond to my playing, singing, and writing with a certain amount of awe, not just for the sake of my ego but because at its very best it awes me, too. I can't really claim it as my own. I find myself saying, and hoping audiences say, too, "I didn't think you could do that." But there's something else people want in a performance, especially one that features the written word. They want a sense that you're saying what they're thinking, that this experience ratifies their own sensibilities. Woody Guthrie (not my favorite songwriter or even one of my Top Twenty - but hey) called himself "the guy that tells you what you already know" and, despite the potential for abuse that statement implies, I still think that in my quest to be the best player, singer, and writer I could imagine I left that element out. I can impress people, but can I move them? It's not that it never happens, but among the compliments I get from listeners fewer than a third say they were touched or inspired. Perhaps twice that say they were knocked out at how "good" it was. I'd like to reverse that ratio. My friend Eric Miller - Seattle's best young songwriter, it says here - told me about listening to Bob Dylan's recent Christmas album, a set of seasonal standards complete with carollers and jingle bells. "It was the worst thing I ever heard," he told me. "But I liked it." Dylan's semi-competence has always been part of his charm, and while I may not ever sing with that tuneless croak or write that many self-consciously primitive non sequitors, I wouldn't mind writing something, someday, that transcends my ability. That would be sweet.

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