Friday, August 7, 2009

When Icons Disappoint

by Scott D. Parker

I encountered two living icons this summer. Both times I was disappointed. I’m trying to figure out why.

Earlier this summer, Elmore Leonard published his latest novel, Road Dogs. Jack Foley’s in this one. If you hadn’t read the book, Out of Sight, you probably know this character as the one George Clooney played brilliantly in the movie version of the same name. It also starred Jennifer Lopez in her pre-J-Lo days. Mr. Leonard doesn’t stop there. He also brings back two other characters from two other books: Cundo Rey (from LaBrava) and Dawn Navaro (from Riding the Rap). Here’s the gist: Foley and Rey are doing time in the same prison. They become “road dogs,” guys who’ll watch each other’s backs while in stir. Rey gets a hot-shot lawyer to reduce Foley’s sentence to almost nothing. The end result is that Foley will be getting out a month ahead of Rey. The short Cuban tells Foley to go to California and get with his common-law wife, Dawn, and start working out a few schemes. Foley’s done robbing banks but knows, in his bones, Rey’s going to call in his chip. Meanwhile, Dawn wants to use Foley to abscond with all of Rey’s money. For Foley, there’s only one question: what’s a guy to do?

Leonard is a brilliant writer with over forty-five books to his name so clearly, he knows what he’s doing. A couple of his early westerns—Valdez is Coming and Hombre—are modern masterpieces demonstrating the economy of writing. They go down easy but say so much more. He can write dialogue like nobody else in the field. You hear a snippet of dialogue that’s hip and cool, it’s probably Leonard. You could even make the case that without Leonard, Quentin Tarrentino’s style of movie doesn’t exist. Leonard’s Rules of Writing are legendary and I have a copy posted near my desk (or in my head) whenever I write. The man is a genius.

I almost didn’t finish Road Dogs. It just went nowhere. Leonard has said numerous times that he likes to get some characters together in the same room, have them talk, and figure out the plot later. The problem with Road Dogs was the former: all they did was talk. Yeah, it was some hip and witty banter and the reader of the audio book, Peter Francis James, was quite good at the dialogue. (BTW, listening to Leonard is the best way to gulp down his books. They *sound* great.) But there was no story. When the story ended, I just sat there, in traffic, and felt disappointed. I kept waiting for the “Aha” moment, that special moment after you’ve read a book when you get it. I am still waiting.

Speaking of waiting, I’ve waited a long time to see Bob Dylan. An icon if there ever was one, I am a late-comer to the Dylan party. I’m one of those fans who never “got” Dylan until his 1997 CD “Time Out of Mind,” the start of his late-career renaissance. Sure, I knew the man, made fun of the way he sang, but I preferred his songs sung by someone else. Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” stands head and shoulders above the original as does Springsteen’s “Chimes of Freedom” from 1988. Since 1997, I’ve purchased every new Dylan CD and gone back and picked up many classic back-catalogue titles such as Blonde on Blonde and the raucous live 1966 recording “The Royal Albert Hall.” But I had never seen the guy in concert.

Until last weekend. When I saw that The Bob Dylan Show starring Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp was scheduled for Houston, I was not going to miss it. Sure, it’s August. Sure it’s hot. But, hey: that’s Texas in the summer. Suck it up. Nelson was his subtle best, playing that nylon-stringed Martin guitar as good as anybody. Mellencamp shined like he always does, even bringing out an acoustic set with just him and a guitar, playing a new song he wrote just three weeks ago. Late in the evening, when Dylan’s set started and the lights died and the music boomed from the speakers, I kid you not that a thrill shot through me when I saw the bard from Minnesota standing there, center stage, guitar in hand, blasting out “Leopard-skin Pill-box Hat.” The band was tight, the music loud, and there was Bob Friggin’ Dylan.

Two songs in, however, Dylan got behind a keyboard…and never left. I longed for a song with just him and the guitar. Didn’t happen. He abdicated the stage and appeared as just one of the band. The band were consummate professionals…but lifeless. And Dylan himself? Well, you know what they say about his singing, that he can’t carry a tune. You listen to his studio recordings, however, especially the modern ones, the man can still sing. Not on stage, apparently. He growled more than he sang. And there were no back-up singers either to even out the sound from the stage. It was just Dylan, his growl, and the music. A couple of times, it wasn’t until the chorus when I figured out “Oh, he’s playing that song?”

I almost left early. I didn’t, but I almost did. I’ve read reviews of the concert in the week since and folks glowingly praise the show. A glance at the set list for the following night and Dylan changed over 80% of the songs. That’s the kind of musical act I appreciate. But, for one night, I was disappointed.

So, what does all this mean, what am I really trying to say about two icons of our times? I’m not sure. Part of it comes down to expectations. The past few Leonard books, starting with Cuba Libre and especially The Hot Kid, were great books containing good stories. In the meantime, I’d read some older Leonard classics and marveled at the work of a master. Ditto for Dylan: his CDs from the 2000s are wonderful and his 2006 CD, “Modern Times,” hits the zeitgeist of this decade smack in the middle of the face. When you experience the work of a master, you expect everything to be amazing. It simply can’t happen that way. We’re all human, right?

I guess what I’m getting at is this: Do we, as readers and listeners (and movie goers and television watchers), expect too much from our icons? Have we put them so high that they can’t have an off-night or an off-book? Is that the evil truth of our modern celebrity culture?

Oh, you might be wondering, with all this wafting in disappointment and let down, if I’ll be in line for the next Leonard book or the next Dylan concert. Without a doubt.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I was terribly disappointed in Dylan when I saw him about ten years ago. He had no, and I mean no, rapport with the audience. Didn't even try. And his songs were unrecognizable. Too bad.

Jay Stringer said...

Saw Dylan about 5 years ago, at a huge venue, and I'm glad I did. It was a good night, good music and his bobness. At the same time, I left knowing I didn't need to see him again. Not on those terms, anyway. He ever does a solo acoustic tour? I'm there.

By comparison I'd always been scared of seeing Springsteen because he has such a legend surrounding his live shows, and yet finally seeing him this year was possibly as close to a religious experience as I'll get.

It's natural that we build up some kind of relationship with our heroes and their body of work. We come to have expectations, almost demands.

Ultimatley though, they owe us nothing. If they've put out an album, film or book that has moved us, that's their duty fullfilled right there. If they've managed it more than once, they're defying the law of averages.

That some artists do manage to continue to deliver Is amazing.

David Cranmer said...

Dylan is recording the best music of his career (Together Through Life is tops) but I'm with Jay that I wouldn't see him perform live again unless there was a acoustic tour.

Steve Weddle said...

I'm a huge Dylan fan. (Seriously, I should lay off the donuts.)
I have a couple of hundred bootlegs of his and have discovered what my high school science one told me and I've heard many times since: If you see Dylan more than once, you'll see the best show ever and the worst.

I don't have the shows at hand, but there's a great one he did in a haunted castle somewhere in UK. Great stuff. Acoustics, setlist and feeling were great. There were some great Rolling Thunder shows, too. And then there were some horrific shows, mostly in the 80s and early 90s.

Dylan has been touring and recording since something like May of 1638. (I could be wrong on the date.) Or maybe that's the number of albums he has.

He's done shows with an electric set and an acoustic set. He varies the setlist, as you mentioned. He does all sort of things to shake things up. And, yeah, sometimes he misses.

I haven't read the book by Mr. Leonard that you mention, but I imagine the same sorts of rules apply.

Both Leonard and Dylan have a mountain of output, just right out there waiting for you to discover your favorite. My favorite Dylan tune is "Brownsville Girl," which he and Sam Shepard wrote. Phenomenal song that takes shape from an old Gregory Peck western. The song itself is a western. Just amazing. (Whether he ever performed that one live is a huge argument among Dylan bootleggers, btw.)

So Dylan does thousands of shows. Leonard writes more than 50 books. Is some of the work going to be not as good as their best. By definition/necessity, uh, yeah.

A few years ago, my wife and I were waiting for a certain book to come out. She'd gotten me hooked on the narrator. The author had written three books with this narrator and this ended up as the fourth. It didn't start out that way. He'd mentioned on his Web site that he was writing a new book, explained the concept and all. Fans flooded the site with posts and emails saying they wanted a new book by the narrator I'd mentioned. So he changed the book. That's how the story goes, anyway. I didn't enjoy the new book as much as I'd liked the other ones. It didn't have the same whatsit that made the other ones good. Until I found out about the narrator switch, I didn't know why. Now I do.

He'd written tons of books his fans liked, then tried to please them again. Dylan doesn't do that. I'd guess Leonard doesn't worry too much about being loved and popular at this point. This life as an artist gig is kinda tough. Wouldn't trade it, of course, but when you write tons of books and perform thousands of concerts, some of them are going to be dogs.

I just hope the next book the author puts out isn't 1 in 5 that doesn't quite work. And if I'm going to take time to go see Dylan on the road somewhere, I hope the concert I see isn't the Road Dog.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think we often do expect too much, although I strive not to. It may be inevitable, though,the fanboy/fangirl inside us all.

John McFetridge said...

Elmore Leonard is currently working on a book about a Somali pirate in New Orleans. I'm much more interested in that one. It's too early to give up on the guy, he's only 83.

The first concert I ever went to in my life was Bob Dylan and The Band in 1975 at the Montreal Forum. I should have just stopped going to concerts then. How was poor Peter Frampton going to top that?

last year's girl said...

I'm glad I got to see Bob Dylan live. But, like Mr Stringer says above, I knew I only needed to see him once. (And yet, I saw him again a couple of months back because a friend had a spare ticket.)

Dana King said...

I felt much the same way about UP IN HOMEY'S ROOM, though I loved THE HOT KID. Leonard has enough of a track record with m that I'll forgive an occasional effort that doesn't seem as good (to me) as the others. Like John said, he's only 83.

As for Dylan, I never got him. My Beloved Spousal Equivalent loves everything about him, and always answers back to my comments about his singing by reminding me what wonderful songs he's written. My standard answer is, they have a job title for people who write great songs but can't sing: songwriter.