Pete's Blog

In Defense of Obscurity

In, "Home Before Dark," her memoir of her father John Cheever, Susan Cheever quotes him from an interview in Newsweek: "When I was about 12 I announced that I wanted to be a writer, and (my parents) said they would have to think it over. After a couple of days they said I could be a writer as long as I didn't seek wealth or fame." This image of high-minded Yankee self-denial in the pure service of art was mostly self-promotion on Cheever's part. He did end up quite rich, after all, at least by the standards of his profession. But it resonated with me nonetheless, perhaps because of my own Puritan heritage, perhaps because my own depression and alcoholism (not that I'm claiming kin) has as its principal symptom something that looks like a profound, indeed pathological, laziness. More than once someone has said to me, after hearing my songs, "Why aren't you a huge star?" Sometimes they mean it as a compliment. My answer, when I'm not able to merely shrug the question off, sounds like a weak amalgam of excuses. I didn't get really good until I was too old for the record industry to care. I was impossible to get along with in my younger days. I blew any opportunity that came my way with attitudinizing and unreliability. But another explanation occurs to me, however self-serving and sour-grapesy. Like anyone's, my performances are about communication, the delivery of a kind of vision. As I grew up I saw again and again the way a songwriter's performance no longer delivered that vision, or delivered it imperfectly, because of the commodification of his work by the media used to present it. Not all the time, surely, but well more than half the time the crush of media stardom begat a kind of gigantism - big stage, big venue, big sound system - that stood between the writer and his listeners like an impenetrable barrier. A great performer can break this barrier (Bruce Springsteen is a good example) but not everybody can or does or cares to; and the effort required leaves a mark. I have always liked driving into town a complete stranger, finding a hole in the wall someplace where a few people are gathered, and taking that coffeehouse, that party, those particular people into my particular world. It doesn't work if I'm wearing a sign that reads "Product" and they're wearing one that reads "Customer." We're all individuals, of different ages, races, genders, and types. We're not wearing the rock uniform or the hip-hop uniform or the folk uniform. And that communication, when it works, can be incredibly profound. So, have I deliberately forsaken material success for the life of a noble nobody? That sounds pretty corny even to such a hardened self-mythologizer as I. And who's to say my art wouldn't be better off for being widely recognized - certainly I'd like to see my songs enjoyed by a younger generation, the way you routinely see ten-year-olds singing along when "A Hard Day's Night" comes on the Muzak, as I did this afternoon. But that moment when a small, even provincial audience locks in, when I feel them concentrating, when I feel them surprised to be somewhere fine despite it not being on television, that's worth something. It has an effect on the art. It is its own thing. And even if I do use it as a rationalization for a profound, pathological laziness it still counts.

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