Friday, February 02, 2007

Individual Craft and Molly Ivins

Molly Ivins' death bothered me more than I thought it would. I was only an occasional reader of hers, though a few of her lines stuck with me over the years. (The classic, of course, was her description of Pat Buchanan's 1992 Republican convention speech -- “it probably sounded better in the original German.”) The hick-shtick thing goes only so far with me, which limited the amount of her stuff that I could read at a given time. (I have the same reaction to Jim Hightower.) Her politics matched mine pretty closely, but that actually made her less interesting to read, since I usually already knew where she was going.

All of that said, there was something fundamentally likable about her. I think it was her unapologetic insistence on being exactly who she was, and her ability to just keep plugging away, even when the environment for her work was often actively hostile. Beneath the writing, there was always a vivid sense of an individual writer. That's why I feel comfortable calling her likable, even though I never met her. Her craft was very much her own. As I get older, I appreciate that stubborn insistence on individual craft more than I once did.

That appreciation for craft, I think, is also at the root of my affection for Kristin Hersh (whom I've also never met). She came out with a new album last week – Learn to Sing Like a Star – and is currently touring bookstores, playing to crowds of twenty or thirty. KH has been making albums for twenty years, mostly without much commercial notice (except for a brief blip around 1994). I discovered her stuff in the early nineties, and have followed faithfully since.

Her appeal, like her persona, is idiosyncratic. She blew off Lilith Fairs, despite repeated invitations, on the grounds that she didn't think her music was about her gender. She moves among several styles – folkie, indie pop, sludgy hard rock – sometimes in the space of a single song. Her voice isn't clean, but it grows on you. (At least, it does for me. The Wife can't stand it. One writer, I forget who, described KH as having “a voice like a siren and a mouth like a trucker.” It's overdone, but recognizable.) Her looks – normal, basically -- are not the basis of her appeal. Her lyrics are uniquely her own, and at their best, they have a way of taking over your brain.

It's not my fault,

It's not my fault you don't love me.

It's not my fault,

It's not my fault you don't love me

when I'm drunk.

  • Your Dirty Answer,” from Sunny Border Blue

Kissing you's like kissing gravel,

it feels like getting drunk.

Kissing you's like sinking down into the muck.

You look better upside-down.

You'd look better lying down.

  • Tar Kissers,from Limbo

She alternates between 'frank' and 'elliptical,' so listening to her stuff can feel like listening to a foreign language you took a few years of in high school – you catch a bit here and a bit there, and there's something vaguely familiar about the sound, but much of the meaning is elusive.

Her best stuff is typically her most tightly-controlled. Albums like Sky Motel or Sunny Border Blue (or Limbo, with Throwing Muses) are somehow both multi-dimensional and deeply idiosyncratic. She writes everything, plays most of the instruments, and sort of expands the contradictions to fill the available space. She constructs incredibly elaborate miniatures, then scales them up as needed. It's rarely smooth – nobody would mistake her writing for, say, Rob Thomas' – and most of it would sound incredibly out-of-place on commercial radio, but it works.

(For my money, Learn to Sing Like a Star is one of her less successful efforts. It has its moments, but she tries to accommodate too many other musicians behind her, and has to water down the material to pull it off. I'd rather have her veer off on one of her gloriously bizarre tangents than bury her vocals so you can hear the string section.)

Even with her lesser efforts, there's always a strong sense of a particular person underneath. She doesn't sound like anyone else, and doesn't try to. On the rare occasions on which she covers someone else's material, she makes it distinctive. (Her cover of Cat Stevens' “Trouble” has supplanted the original, as far as I'm concerned, in much the same way that Tina Turner now owns “Proud Mary” and Cassandra Wilson owns “Tupelo Honey.”) Unsurprisingly, she has developed a sideline as a blogger, and has shown some serious writerly chops. (Check out the entry “vodka and chocolates.”)

Some of my favorite bloggers have that same ability to give you the sense of a real person behind the writing. I have a very vivid mental picture of Aunt B., at Tiny Cat Pants, despite never having met her. In a very different style, Danigirl accomplishes the same thing. Like Ivins and Hersh, they just keep plugging away with their distinctive visions and styles, gradually adding nuance to the picture, but never being bland or dishonest. Even the less-successful entries are always at least interesting, and the best work has a flavor not found anywhere else.

(For some reason, most of the folks who came to mind in this genre are female. Among the guys, Tom Waits certainly has his own style, and his best stuff is shockingly good. Even some of his throwaways are better than most folks' hits. Check out this one from Orphans:

Her hair was as black as a bucket of oil,

Skin white as a cuttlefish bone.

I left Texas to follow Lucinda,

Now I'll never see heaven or home.

If you're good enough to write that and not use it, I tip my cap.)

It's one thing to be interesting. It's quite another to be consistently interesting day-in-and-day-out (for bloggers), or decade after decade. The older I get, the more I respect people who manage to stay interesting over time. Talent is great, but there's also something admirable about dogged persistence. With the really prolific ones, if you follow them long enough, you can almost hear them squeal with delight when they surprise themselves with an especially good one.

Blogging has made it easier for quasi-columnists to get their (our) stuff out there than it used to be. Molly Ivins did it the hard way, when soapboxes were few and far between.

There's plenty of crap out there, but every so often, you find a real writer. Molly Ivins was a real writer before this series of tubes meant very much. Well done, Molly. We who admire the blogging aesthetic salute you. And I chuckle at the image of you cursing a blue streak at St. Peter, a tallboy in one hand and a placard in the other.