Don’t Go Chasing Eel Testicles: A Brief, Select History of Sigmund Freud


We all envy those who knew, at a relatively young age, what they wanted to do for a living. Most of us experience some moments of inspiration that might lead us toward a path, but few of us ever read medical journals, law reviews, or business periodicals during our formative years. Most of the young people I knew preferred an NFL preview guide of some sort, teenage heartthrob magazines, or one of the many other periodicals that offer soft entertainment value. Most of us opted out of reading altogether and chose to play something that involved a ball instead. Life was all about playtime for the kids I grew up around, but there were other, more serious kids, who we wouldn’t meet until we were older. Few of them knew they would become neurosurgeons, but they were so interested in medicine that they devoted huge chunks of their young lives to learning everything their young minds could retain. “How is this even possible?” some of us ask. How could they achieve that level of focus at such a young age, we wonder. Are we even the same species?

At an age when so many minds are so unfocused, they claimed to have tunnel vision. “I didn’t have that level of focus,” some said to correct the record, “not the level of focus to which you are alluding.” They may have diverged from the central focus, but they had more direction than anyone I knew, and that direction put them on the path of doing what they ended up doing, even if it wasn’t as specific as I guessed.

The questions we have about what to do for a living have plagued so many for so long that comedian Paula Poundstone captured it with a well-placed joke, and I apologize, in advance, for the paraphrasing: “Didn’t you hate it when your relatives asked what you wanted to do for a living? Um, Grandpa I’m 5. I haven’t fully grasped the mechanics or the importance of brushing my teeth yet. Those of us of a certain age have now been on both sides of this question. We’ve been asking our nieces and nephews this question for years without detecting the irony. What do you want to do when you grow up? Now that I’ve been asking this question long enough, I’ve finally figured out why we ask it. Our aunts and uncles asked us this question, because they were looking for ideas. I’m in my forties now, and I’m still asking my nieces and nephews these questions. I’m still looking for ideas.”

Pour through the annals of great men and women of history, and that research will reveal legions of late bloomers who didn’t accomplish anything of note until late in life. The researcher will also discover that most of the figures who achieved success in life were just as dumb and carefree as children as the rest of us were, until the seriousness of adulthood directed them to pursue a venture in life that would land them in the annals of history. Some failed more than once in their initial pursuits, until they discovered something that flipped a switch.

Those who know anything about psychology, and many who don’t, are familiar with the name Sigmund Freud. Those who know anything about Freud are aware of his unique theories about the human mind and human development. Those who know anything about his psychosexual theory know we are all repressed sexual beings plagued with unconscious desires to have relations with some mythical Greek king’s mother. What we might not know, because we consider it ancillary to his greater works, is that some of his theories might have originated from Freud’s pursuit of the Holy Grail of nineteenth-century science, the elusive eel testicles.

Although some annals state that an Italian scientist named Carlo Mondini discovered eel testicles in 1777, other periodicals state that the search continued up to and beyond the search of an obscure 19-year-old Austrian’s in 1876.[1] Other research states that the heralded Aristotle conducted his own research on the eel, and his studies resulted in postulations that stated either that the beings came from the “guts of wet soil”, or that they were born “of nothing”.[2] One could guess that these answers resulted from great frustration, since Aristotle was so patient with his deductions in other areas. On the other hand, he also purported that maggots were born organically from a slab of meat. “Others, who conducted their own research, swore that eels were bred of mud, of bodies decaying in the water. One learned bishop informed the Royal Society that eels slithered from the thatched roofs of cottages; Izaak Walton, in The Compleat Angler, reckoned they sprang from the ‘action of sunlight on dewdrops’.”

Before laughing at any of these findings, one must consider the limited resources these researchers had at their disposal, concerning the science of their day. As is oft said with young people, the young Freud might not have had the wisdom yet to know how futile this task would be when a nondescript Austrian zoological research station employed him. It was his first job, he was 19, and it was 1876. He dissected approximately 400 eels, over a period of four weeks, “Amid stench and slime for long hours” as the New York Times described Freud’s working environment. [3] His ambitious goal was to write a breakthrough research paper on an animal’s mating habits, one that had confounded science for centuries. Conceivably, a more seasoned scientist might have considered the task futile much earlier in the process, but an ambitious, young 19-year-old, looking to make a name for himself, was willing to spend long hours slicing and dicing eels, hoping to achieve an answer no one could disprove.

Unfortunate for the young Freud, but perhaps fortunate for the field of psychology, we now know that eels don’t have testicles until they need them. The products of Freud’s studies must not have needed them at the time he studied them, for Freud ended up writing that his total supply of eels were “of the fairer sex.” Freud eventually penned that research paper over time, but it detailed his failure to locate the testicles. Some have said Freud correctly predicted where the testicles should be and that he argued that the eels he received were not mature eels. Freud’s experiments resulted in a failure to find the testicles, and he moved into other areas as a result. The question on the mind of this reader is how profound of an effect did this failure to find eel testicles have on his research into human sexual development?

In our teenage and young adult years, most of us had odd jobs that affected us in a variety of ways, for the rest of our working lives. For most, these jobs were low-paying, manual labor jobs that we slogged through for the sole purpose of getting paid. Few of us pined over anything at that age, least of all a legacy that we hoped might land us in annals of history. Most of us wanted to do well in our entry-level jobs, to bolster our character, but we had no profound feelings of failure if we didn’t. We just moved onto other jobs that we hoped we would find more financially rewarding and fulfilling.

Was Freud’s search for eel testicles the equivalent of an entry-level job, or did he believe in the vocation so much that the failure devastated him? Did he slice the first 100 or so eels open and throw them aside with the belief that they were immature? Was there nothing but female eels around him, as he wrote, or was he beginning to see what had plagued the other scientists for centuries, including the brilliant Aristotle? There had to be a moment, in other words, when Sigmund Freud realized that they couldn’t all be female. He had to know, at some point, that he was missing the same something everyone else missed. He must have spent some sleepless nights struggling to come up with a different tactic. He might have lost his appetite at various points, and he may have shut out the world in his obsession to achieve infamy in marine biology. He sliced and diced over 400 after all. If even some of this is true, even if it only occupied his mind for four weeks of his life, we can feasibly imagine that the futile search for eel testicles affected Sigmund Freud in a profound manner.

If Freud Never Existed, Would There Be a Need to Create Him?

Every person approaches a topic of study from a subjective angle. It’s human nature. Few of us can view people, places, or things in our lives, with total objectivity. The topic we are least objective about, say some, is ourselves. Some say that we are the central topic of speculation when we theorize about humanity. All theories are autobiographical, in other words, and we pursue such questions in an attempt to understand ourselves better. Bearing that in mind, what was the subjective angle from which Sigmund Freud approached his most famous theory on psychosexual development in humans? Did he bring objectivity to his patients? Could he have been more objective, or did Freud have a blind spot that led him to chase the elusive eel testicles throughout his career in the manner Don Quixote chased windmills?

After his failure, Sigmund Freud would switch his focus to a field of science that would later become psychology. Soon thereafter, patients sought his consultation. We know now that Freud viewed most people’s problems through a sexual lens, but was that lens tinted by the set of testicles he couldn’t find a lifetime ago? Did his inability to locate the eel’s reproductive organs prove so prominent in his studies that he saw them everywhere he went, in the manner that a rare car owner begins to see his car everywhere, soon after driving that it off the lot? Some say that if this is how Freud conducted his sessions, he did so in an unconscious manner, and others say this might have been the basis for his theory on unconscious actions. How different would Freud’s theories on development have been if he found his Holy Grail, and the Holy Grail of science at the time? How different would his life have been? We could also wonder if Freud would have even switched his focus if he found fame as a marine biologist with his findings.

How different would the field of psychology be today if Sigmund Freud remained a marine biologist? Alternatively, if he still made the switch to psychology after achieving fame in marine biology, for being the eel testicle spotter, would he have approached the study of the human development, and the human mind from a less subjective angle? Would his theory on psychosexual development have occurred to him at all? If it didn’t, is it such a fundamental truth that it would’ve occurred to someone else over time, even without Freud’s influence?

We can state, without too much refutation, that Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual theory has sexualized the beliefs many have about human development, a theory others now consider disproved. How transcendental was that theory, and how much subjective interpretation was involved in it? How much of the subjective interpretation derived from his inability to find the eel testicle fueled it? Put another way, did Freud ever reach a point where he began overcompensating for that initial failure?

Whether it’s an interpretive extension, or a direct reading of Freud’s theory, modern scientific research theorizes that most men want some form of sexual experience with another man’s testicles. This theory, influenced by Freud’s theories, suggests that those that claim they don’t are lying in a latent manner, and the more a man says he doesn’t, the more repressed his homosexual desires are.

The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, a sexual orientation law think tank, released a study in April 2011 that stated that 3.6 percent of males in the U.S. population are either openly gay or bisexual.[4] If these findings are even close to correct, this leaves 96.4 percent who are, according to Freud’s theory, closeted homosexuals in some manner. Neither Freud nor anyone else has been able to put even a rough estimate on the percentage of heterosexuals who harbor unconscious, erotic inclinations toward members of the same sex, but the very idea that the theory has achieved worldwide fame leads some to believe there is some truth to it. Analysis of some psychological studies on this subject provides the quotes, “It is possible … Certain figures show that it would indicate … All findings can and should be evaluated by further research.” In other words, no conclusive data and all findings and figures are vague. Some would suggest that these quotes are ambiguous enough that they can be used by those who would have their readers believe that most of the 96.4 percent who express contrarian views are actively suppressing their desire to not just support the view, but to actively involve themselves in that way of life.[5]

Some label Sigmund Freud as history’s most debunked doctor, but his influence on the field of psychology and on the ways society at large views human development and sexuality is indisputable. The greater question, as it pertains specific to Freud’s psychosexual theory, is was Freud a closet homosexual, or was his angle on psychological research affected by his initial failure to find eel testicles? To put it more succinct, which being’s testicles was Freud more obsessed with finding during his lifetime?

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eel_life_history

[2]http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/oct/27/the-decline-of-the-eel

[3]http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/25/health/psychology/analyze-these.html

[4]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_sexual_orientation

[5]http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/assault/roots/freud.html

If you enjoyed this unique perspective on Sigmund Freud, you might also enjoy the following:

Charles Bukowski Hates Mickey Mouse

The History of Bloodletting by Mark Twain

The Perfect Imperfections of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis

James Joyce: Incomparable or Incomprehensible?

Rasputin I: Rasputin Rises

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Is Elon Musk Rasputin or Cosmo Kramer?


How many of us thought we would not live long enough to see the mind-blowing innovations displayed in countless sci-fi movies? How many of us thought we’d live to see portable communication devices that we could put in our pocket? How many of us considered self-driving cars and vision phones where we could see the person on the other end of the line? How many of us thought we’d have a computer in just about every home? How many of us thought with all these wild innovations that defied boundaries that we would all be wearing silver suits while watching TV, mowing the lawn, or doing the dishes in the distant year 2000? If you watched movies or TV during the bygone era, you knew these were the visions of life on Earth in the future.

Photo courtesy of American Conservative

How many of us now laugh when we picture our deceased relatives trying to figure out how to use our current innovative gadgets? Our generation now knows that these sci-fi movies portrayed life in the 2000s correctly in some ways and incorrectly in others, but one thing they were right about is we know more technological innovation than our forebears did. Even the generation below us is more accustomed to life with such innovation than we were. Walk into any junior high in the country and you’ll witness work in robotics that is no longer speculative. You’ll also witness the work they do with computers that belies the fact that they are so accustomed to computers being a facet of human life that they’ve worked through any intimidation they might have had with the machines a decade before junior high. The question now is are we so accustomed to technological innovation that we’re more open to wild, crazy ideas than every generation before us, and are we so open to it that we leave ourselves susceptible to the possibilities of more from an ingenious charlatan?

The early 1900’s were another period of great innovation. Individuals such as Nikola Tesla and Henry Ford were at the forefront of innovations that intimidated most of their populations. How many of them had a difficult time initially conceiving of the extent of man’s capabilities? How many people thought the advancements made in medicine alone bordered on the heretical? How many of them feared that “modern medicine” was coming close to messing with God’s plan when it came to prolonging life? As the people of that era attempted to come to grips with the advancements man was making in the fields of automation and medicine, the image of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam must’ve danced in their head. Over time, the people of this era became more open to mankind’s ability to make life easier and better for their fellow man through advancement, but were they so open to these ideas that they became more susceptible to proclamations of a charlatan?

Some say the time Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin spent on farms in small, obscure parts of Russia may have helped him understand the healing properties of some natural medicines better than most. Some say that he might have learned hypnosis techniques elsewhere in life, and he understood how to employ it before most understood it. Others suggest he may have learned autosuggestion techniques that some farmers used to calm their horses, and that Rasputin may have used one or all of these techniques to calm the nerves of the mother of the young heir to the Russian Empire. Whatever the case was, his ability to alieve the young heir of some of the symptoms of bad case of hemophilia was a cause célèbre in the nation of Russia. Some honored the great achievement, and others were in awe of the possibilities of what Rasputin could achieve. Some also fear him with that rationale. The largely ostracized Russians believed Rasputin displayed mystical powers, God-given powers. They thought he was a chosen one, and the Russian Empire gave him an influential role in the empire as a result. Some say that this precipitated the decline of the Russian Empire, but others say that implosion was inevitable.

Is Elon Musk our nation’s modern day Rasputin? Rasputin cloaked his rise in mystical wonderment, and Musk drapes himself in the speculative questions of what a genius in the field of technological innovation can achieve. Both men also used their newfound status to make wildly ambitious claims to cause the citizens of their nation to hold them in speculative wonder.

Columnist Norm Singleton paints a far less provocative portrait of Musk in his, Elon Musk is the Cosmo Kramer of Crony Capitalism” column. In it, Mr. Singleton details the wildly ambitious ideas Elon Musk and his fictional counterpart relayed to their respective audience. The difference between the two, of course, is that Cosmo Kramer never received the federal grants the taxpayer has given Mr. Musk to pursue his wildly ambitious ideas. Another difference, and one Mr. Singleton does not explore, is that Mr. Musk has achieved some results that have established him as a certified genius. He founded X.com, which later became PayPal. He has an admirable record of accomplishment at SpaceX and Tesla, and he has a list of accomplishments that no one can deny. Singleton’s column does not focus on that list of accomplishment, but it does challenge the current resume of Elon Musk in a manner that no politician dare explore by asking if Musk’s current accomplishments align with the continued, all too generous federal and state grants he receives. Some might argue that Musk is not a charlatan, because of those accomplishments, and because he actually believes in all of his ideas, but Cosmo Kramer believed his ideas too, and so did Rasputin.

Somewhere on the road to technological innovation, someone (likely a politician) convinced us that if our nation is fortunate enough to house a certifiable genius, we’re going to have to pay for the innovations he creates to make our lives easier and better. We’re not talking about paying for the final product of ingenuity at the proverbial cash register either, though there are some on the consumer end who don’t understand that concept. (They think the corporate responsibility suggests that all online innovation should be free.) We’re talking about taxpayers funding the creative process of the bona fide genius. For those who haven’t read as much as I have about the creative process, artists love to talk about it almost as much as they love creating. They love to talk about their influences, the structured method they used to bring their product to life, and the future projects they have in store for us. If someone were to pay these artists for such talk alone, I think most artists would give up the painstaking process of actual creation and opt for the life of describing their process instead.

Filing for government grants has been around for as long as I’ve been alive, and as one who has never filed for a grant, I will admit ignorance on this topic, but I would think that success in field of receiving successive grants requires constant proof of success on the part of the artist. Enter the technological genius. Many consider Elon Musk the rare innovative genius who should not have to worry about pesky concerns like money. Politicians, specifically, appear to believe that Musk should not have to provide continued results for continued money, apparently, for demanding as much from a technological innovator that promises breakthroughs in science, would be tantamount to career suicide for them.

Norm Singleton concludes his piece by saying that the best thing we could do for Elon Musk is to cut off all government funding for his ventures. Those who believe the concept that if we want technological innovation, we’re going to have to pay for the process, have never heard the quote, “The best we’ll ever see from an individual often occurs shortly after they’ve been backed into a corner.” Those who think the removal of financial support damages the creative process might want to go back and read that quote again. The politician who sticks their neck out to remove federal funding from Elon Musk would risk insulting Elon Musk, and Musk’s lobbying group might mortally wound that politician, but that insult might inspire Musk to prove the politician wrong, and that motivation might drive him to pursue greater profits as a result. Cutting him off from all state and federal funding might also force him to be a more traditional CEO, in that he would be more accountable to disgruntled shareholders, more cognizant of his companies’ profit margins, and it might force him to be more of a results-oriented man and less of a theoretical idea man.

I think Mr. Singleton has a great idea, but in order for his idea to work, he would need to find a significant number of politicians who have the fortitude to say no to an established genius in the field of technological innovation. That politician would also have to fight Musk’s powerful lobbying groups and the stigma of the “against science” label. No, Elon Musk carved out an enviable place by being an established genius. He has also developed an enviable formula for all artistic geniuses to follow. Once a person has established themselves as a bona fide genius (no easy feat to be sure) all that genius has to do is develop some ideas for wildly ambitious projects on a semi-annual basis to achieve headlines in major newspapers that no politician can ignore. Their projects may never see the light of day, but they will secure nonstop funding from easily intimidated politicians.

It may be a gross exaggeration to insinuate that the brilliant, innovative Elon Musk might be a charlatan, but when it comes to securing such regular, enormous chunk of the taxpayer’s hard-earned dollars, we the people, and our representatives, should hold the prospective recipient guilty until proven innocent.

I may be alone in this regard now, as those in charge of allocating our tax dollars appear unafraid of defying logic, but I hold an achievement devoid government funding in higher regard. As former president, Calvin Coolidge said shortly before his demise, “I feel I no longer fit in with these times.” Perhaps I no longer fit in with these times, but if an entrepreneur states that his or her project made it to the marketplace based on individual ingenuity and sheer grit, I respect that accomplishment more. I also appreciate the effort it takes to pound the pavement and secure private funding, but the Elon Musk methods of convincing a bunch of politicians to part ways with other people’s money seems far too beneficial to all parties involved and way too easy.

Leonardo’s Lips and Lines


My takeaway from Walter Isaacson’s Leonard da Vinci biography is that hypervigilance is not a switch an artist turns on to create. Artistic creations are often a display of one’s genuine curiosity about the world, a culmination of obsessive research into the miniscule details that others missed, and a portal through which the artist can reveal their findings. Did Leonardo da Vinci’s obsessions drive him to be an artist, or did he become obsessed with the small details of life to become a better artist?

Da Vinci might have started obsessively studying various elements, such as water, rock formations, and all of the other natural elements to inform his art, but he became so obsessed with his initial findings that he pursued them for reasons beyond art. He pursued them, the author states, for the sake of knowledge.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book capture an artist’s artistic process as well as this one did. The thesis of the book is that da Vinci’s artistic creations were not merely the work of a gifted artist, but of an obsessive genius honing in on scientific discoveries to inform the minutiae of his process. Some reviews argue that this bio focuses too much on the minutiae of da Vinci’s work, but after reading the book, I don’t see how an author could capture the essence of what da Vinci’s accomplished without focusing on his obsessions, as focusing and obsessing on the finer details separated him from all of the brilliant artists that followed.

Some have alluded to the idea that da Vinci just happened to capture Lisa Gherardini, or Lisa del Giocondo, in the perfect smile for his famous painting The Mona Lisa. The inference is that da Vinci asked her to do a number of poses, and that his gift was merely in working with Lisa to find that perfect pose and then capture it, in the manner a photographer might. Such theories, Isaacson illustrates, shortchange the greatest work of one of history’s greatest artists.

Isaacson also discounts the idea that da Vinci’s finished products were the result of a divine gift, and I agree in the sense that suggesting his work was a result of a gift discounts everything da Vinci did to inform his work. There were other artists with similar gifts in da Vinci’s time, and there have been many more since, yet da Vinci’s work maintains a rarified level of distinction in the art world.

As an example of Leonardo’s obsessiveness, he dissected cadavers to understand the musculature elements involved in producing a smile. Isaacson provides exhaustive details of Leonardo’s work, but writing about such endeavors cannot properly capture how tedious this research must have been. Writing that da Vinci spent years exploring cadavers to discover all the ways the brain and spine work in conjunction to produce expression, for example, cannot capture the trials and errors da Vinci must have experienced before finding the subtle muscular formations inherent in the famous, ambiguous smile that captured the deliberate effect he was trying to achieve. (Isaacson’s description of all the variables that inform da Vinci’s process regarding The Mona Lisa’s ambiguous smile that historians suggest da Vinci used more than once is the best paragraph in the book.) One can only guess that da Vinci spent most of his time researching for these artistic truths alone, and that even his most loyal assistants pleaded that he not put them on the insanely tedious lip detail.

Isaacson also goes to great lengths to reveal Leonardo’s study of lights and shadows, in the sfumato technique, to provide the subjects of his paintings greater dimension and realistic and penetrating eyes. Da Vinci then spent years, sometimes decades, putting changes on his “incomplete projects”. Witnesses say that he could spend hours looking at an incomplete project only to add one little dab of paint.

The idea of a gift implies that all an artist has to do is apply their gift to whatever canvas stands before them and that they should do it as often as possible to pay homage to that gift until they achieve a satisfactory result. As Isaacson details this doesn’t explain what separates da Vinci from other similarly gifted artists in history. The da Vinci works we admire to this day were but a showcase of his ability, his obsessive research on matters similarly gifted artists might consider inconsequential, and the application of that knowledge he attained from the research.

Why, for example, would one spend months, years, and decades studying the flow of water, and its connections to the flow of blood in the heart? The nature of da Vinci’s obsessive qualities belies the idea that he did it for the sole purpose of fetching a better price for his art. He also, as the author points out, turned down more commissions than he accepted. This coupled with the idea that while he might have started an artistic creation on a commissioned basis, he often did not give the finished product to the one paying him for the finished product. As stated with some of his works, da Vinci hesitated to do this because he didn’t consider it finished, completed, or perfect. As anyone who understands the artistic process understands, the idea that art has reached a point where it cannot be improved upon is often more difficult to achieve for the artist than starting one. Some might suggest that achieving historical recognition drove him, but da Vinci had no problem achieving recognition in his lifetime, as most connoisseurs of art considered him one of the best painters of his era. We also know that da Vinci published little of what would’ve been revolutionary discoveries in his time, and he carried most of his artwork with him for most of his life, perfecting it, as opposed to selling it, or seeking more fame with it.

After reading all that informed da Vinci’s process, coupled with the appreciation we have for the finished product, I believe we can now officially replace the meme that uses the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album to describe an artist’s artistic peak with The Mona Lisa.

Ten Reasons to Buy: Based on a True Story: A Memoir


Number Ten: Norm Macdonald appears to have had no career advancing goals in the writing of this book. Most artists use the memoir as a vehicle to promote their career, and the idea that while they may appear to be a little quirky to the naked eye, deep in their heart, they are actually a very wonderful person. No matter how apathetic, somewhat cruel, and insensitive an author of such material is, the unspoken rule of such comedy is that the author break down the fourth wall, in some manner, to let the audience in on the joke. Norm Macdonald, the character that he has created for this book, and all of the layers in between do not appear to care that the reader regard him as a wonderful, compassionate, good guy. Most authors that approach a style similar to the book, qualify their motivations for doing what they did with follow ups that redound to the benefit of the author. Norm Macdonald does not appear to care why the reader bought his book, about their outlook on him, or if that reader feels good about themselves, and their world, when they have finished the book.

There are no politics in this book, in other words. Norm Macdonald appears to feel no need to convince us that he is actually very smart, savvy, or anything more than he is. There are no subtle approaches to politics that inform the audience that Norm is compassionate, empathetic, or nuanced. For those of us that do not care what a celebrity thinks, this approach is refreshing.

29937870Number Nine: The narrative voice in Based on a True Story: A Memoir comes from an old world influence. (How many modern books invoke the word “Hoosegow”?) That voice provides contrast to the cutting edge, nouveau humor Norm Macdonald employs in his narrative, but that contrast serves to intrigue more than it confuses. If the reader is the type that needs some sort of qualifier, or apology, for somewhat cruel, and insensitive scenes, takes, and reactions that occur throughout this book, it can be found somewhere in this kind, Midwestern sounding voice that Norm, and his ghost writer Charlie Manson, employ.

I knew nothing of Macdonald’s upbringing, prior to the reading of this book, and I didn’t care about it either. After reading the initial chapters of this book, however, I found myself relating to the rhythms and verbiage the author employed that was later explained by the fact that Norm Macdonald had an older father, and that he spent much of his youth surrounded by old, hired hands that knew nothing beyond manual labor. These were no-nonsense men that had an old world structure to their being that is too often lacking in today’s weak, easily offended culture. The locale of Macdonald’s rearing was different than mine, it turned out, but the small details of his maturation were so similar to mine that I was surprised to learn we didn’t grow up the exact same. This could be as a result of Norm’s better-than-expected ability to relate to the reader, or his ghost writer’s ability to translate Norm’s thoughts into a book that I found my voice in. The ghost writer is renamed Charlie Manson for the purpose of this book (not that Charlie Manson, the other one.)

Number Eight: There is some name-dropping in this book, but on the number of occasions in which he runs into celebrities, Norm’s character does not ingratiate himself to that person, or the trappings of that world. His character remains on the outside looking in, and there are no subsequent tropes that reveal a little guy finding his place in a larger world. This is not the typical celebrity memoir, in other words, but Norm Macdonald is not the typical celebrity. Norm’s character remains outside their world throughout, and it’s endemic to the character that he not endear himself to these people any more than he distances himself from them with insider insults.

Number Seven: For those of us that have never been able to explain why we find Norm Macdonald intriguing, this book only serves to highlight that confusion. He is an unusual person with unusual insights, raised in an unusual culture (unusual to most celebrities that is), and he has an unusual outlook on life as a result. A comprehensive nature of Norm Macdonald’s voice has never been captured as well before, and it remains consistent throughout this piece. How many talk shows has Norm Macdonald been on where he provides a brief glimpse into his mind with an unusual story that is funny in a way that the audience (and often the host of the show) doesn’t completely understand? How many of them have laughed with raised eyebrows, or other visual displays of concern for either Norm Macdonald, or themselves for laughing? That voice is here, in this book, and expanded upon.

Number Six: The shifts in perspective that Norm Macdonald achieves in this book are near seamless. Some call it style, others simply call it a proficiency for storytelling. Whatever the case is, if the reader has gained an appreciation for such minutiae in their books, they will thoroughly enjoy this. On those occasions when the seams are exposed, most of them involve Norm’s trademarked conclusions that remind the reader of the obnoxious conclusions Macdonald achieves in his stand up routines, and more famously on Weekend Update.

Number Five: A number of comedians, and top shelf celebrities have learned how to poke fun of themselves, but I would suggest that most of those people have learned the art of how to engage in self-effacing humor while allowing the audience in on the joke. There is a point by point, color by numbers approach to this form of comedy that has evolved thanks in part to Andy Kaufman, Chris Elliot, David Letterman, and perhaps Will Farrell. Other comedians have displayed the base nature of their talent by attempting to take the premise of this approach to crueler, and more obnoxious levels. It’s all good, though, because we all know it’s all in good, clean fun. We know that these jokes are all delivered in a tongue-in-cheek manner. In the character Norm has developed, onstage and off (with this book) the reader is not so sure. The narrative of “Based on a True Story: A Memoir” leads the reader to feel sorry for the character, while laughing at his naiveté, and his inability to abide by social norms.

Number Four: Although each bit in this book is a bit of one form or another, the layers of reality, coupled with the careful wording of each story leads the reader to believe that the author, the character, and all layers in between, believe otherwise. The book achieves that fine art of “the willing suspension of disbelief” in other words, that leads the reader to believe that they are being exposed to an uncomfortable level of nudity that is so sad that Norm Macdonald may either be a bad person, or a person that missed a few monkey bars on the way to maturation.

Number Three: Monty Python had a slogan that prefaced much of their material, “And now for something completely different.” For those of us that pine for something different, this book contains stories, reactions, and anecdotes that I have to imagine most authors, and almost all celebrities do their best to avoid. I have a sneaking suspicion that Macdonald’s public relations people asked him to include the “Based on” words to the title of his book. I have a sneaking suspicion that Norm wouldn’t mind it one bit if the reader believed this was the true story of Norm Macdonald’s life. Something tells me that his people, friends, associates, and business partners cautioned him to bolster the doubt regarding the material, because too many people might believe it’s his true story, and that this book may do some damage to his career.

Number Two: As one of Norm’s good friends says on a near-daily basis, “Always be closing.” As such, “Based on a True Story: A Memoir” is either building to a close throughout the various chapters, or its closing throughout. When it’s not strict to script of the respective story, hilarious anecdotes break the story up so well that one has to gather one’s self and remind themselves where the narrative was heading. The anecdotes appear to be accidental humor in other words. In the beginning of this book, I began highlighting some of the jokes believing that they would be precious jewels that I would have to remember. I do this with all provocative lines and paragraphs, but as I continued throughout the book, I gave up, knowing that when one highlights too often, the portions that are highlighted begin to lose value.

Number One: Norm Macdonald does whatever the hell Norm Macdonald wants. Is this a true narrative, Norm not does appear to care what the reader believes one way or another. Is this a readable narrative that involves the time-honored traditions of storytelling, Norm doesn’t appear to care. The storytelling format does have a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas feel to it, but other than that it does not follow the rules of any celebrity memoir that I’ve ever read. He may have informed us of some true facts regarding his upbringing, and the many things that have happened to him along the way, but he doesn’t care if the readers knows the difference, or, apparently, if those distinctions could lead to some damage of his career as an entertainer. As a result, I would say that this is by far the best celebrity memoir I have ever read, but I have the feeling Norm wouldn’t care what one way or another.

It’s ‘Okay to Like’ Guilty Pleasures


“It’s okay to like your favorite shows again, even if they have no cultural value or societal significance,” a person informed my friend.  “As long as the preference for the show is characterized as a guilty pleasure.”

After receiving permission to enjoy the show my friend once so enjoyed, she began binge watching the show on Netflix. She watched this show in the manner of one catching up with an old friend, after a prolonged absence. She knew the show was a silly sitcom, and she also knew that the premise of that show –though somewhat relevant in its era– had become dated and insignificant. So, even though she had always loved the show, she stopped watching it, even in private, until that friend of hers ‘gave her permission’ to end that prolonged exile, informing her that ‘it is now okay’ to enjoy that show again.

o-GILLIGAN-facebookAs with ubiquitous idioms of this sort, I heard the terms ‘given permission,’ ‘guilty pleasure,’ and ‘it’s okay to like’ before. When everyone begins saying such things, however, I’m left wondering where I was in the gestation cycle of the phrase. I didn’t think the phrases funny, when I first began hearing them, or if they were intended to be funny. I didn’t think they provided an interesting twist on the art of decision-making, and I didn’t think that I would ever be incorporating them into my decision-making process, or the explanations to others regarding my choices.

I just thought it was an odd way for one person to frame the dietary decisions she had made, and that’s where it started for me.  I’d heard people, largely women, framing dietary cheats this way. ‘I’ve been good,’ they would say before they took a bite of something they knew damaged the discipline they had exhibited to that point. They then gave themselves permission to eat what they wanted based on that established discipline, and they called those cheats guilty pleasures. At some point, these phrases made a crossover into other decisions, until people began framing all of their decisions with these qualifiers. They also began informing me that I should frame my decisions in this manner, that I should give it a spin, as it were, and that with these qualifiers, I could now make my decisions free from the guilt associated with prying eyes.

“Why wouldn’t it be okay for me to like the television shows I enjoy?” I would ask when the phrases began crossing over into entertainment choices. At this point in the gestation cycle of these phrases it was obvious that something had already happened. I didn’t know if it happened in the shows I never watch, some movie I missed, or if the phrase had been repeated in a commercial, or a number of commercials, but some vehicle had imprinted these phrases so deeply into the craniums of the people I speak with that they were using the phrases without knowing why. I’ve often found that the best way to cut to the heart of the matter is to ask a question so obvious that no one ever thought of it before.  ‘Why isn’t okay for me to like what I like?’ and ‘Why am I then required to qualify my choices in a manner that prevents you from thinking less of me?’ I began asking variations of these questions of those that posed these notions to me, and as with most idioms of this sort, no one knows why. They just hear other people framing their decisions in this manner, until they find themselves doing it.

After questioning a number of these people, I made the mistake of dismissing these phrases on the basis that no one understood why they did it, and I assumed that it would have a very short shelf life, until everyone I knew began repeating these phrases in almost the same context, and Google searches began revealing websites that were being built around the idea that ‘It’s ok to like’ this today, and ‘it’s okay to dislike’ other things. I even found a Twitter page that gave its visitors permission to like some things and to like other people that like other things. It’s difficult to determine how tongue-in-cheek these grants of permission are, or if these people enjoy being on the cutting edge of cultural trends.

Then, I hear that my friend is now binge watching her favorite show of all-time again, and she’s characterizing it as her ‘one guilty pleasure’. She drops that phrase, I could only assume, to prevent me from thinking less of her for watching such a dated, irrelevant show. She cared what I thought of her, in that instance, and I rationalized that unless we have a master plan of dropping out of the human race, we all care what others think to a point where we need to develop some kind of shield to protect our inner sanctum from prying eyes. Those that have attempted to loft the very high school era idea that they don’t care what anyone thinks of them have inevitably run into the ‘thou doth protest too much’ wall that reveals that they probably care more than anyone else. One could say that this ‘guilty pleasure’ allowance has not only ‘given us permission’ to enjoy the shows we enjoyed so much at one time, it gave rise to an industry in which cable channels like TV Land could prosper, and a Netflix was born, and the whole idea of binge watching became a permissible and acceptable guilty pleasure.

The first question I would’ve asked this ‘guilty pleasure’ friend of my friend that granted her permission to like her favorite show again is, ‘How many guilty pleasures is one person permitted, and what happens to that person that violates the excessive quantity principle of the lack of quality edict?’ One would assume that the term guilty pleasure is intended to be exclusive to one, or at least a few, products.  Are these guilty pleasures exclusive within industries? Can one have more than one television show they consider a guilty pleasure, and if so, is it specific to genre? If one has more than one ‘60’s era, silly sitcom, that they characterize as a guilty pleasure, is that a violation of guilty pleasure principle, and if the person has too many guilty pleasures will they end up spending so much time pleasuring themselves that they may find themselves walking around with burdensome guilt? Would that person be deemed unimportant, and would that lead them to being ostracized from the hip, in touch groups in a manner reminiscent of a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel?’ Who are these social architects that dictate to society what is and what isn’t okay to watch? And how did this need for the ‘guilty pleasure’ qualifier come about, so that we can watch what we want without undue scrutiny?

We’ve all been informed that The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island are okay to dislike, by these people, because these shows, and all shows like them, are impossible to take seriously. They say that these shows depict a silly and foolish era that we’ve all moved beyond, and ‘good riddance!’ they often add. At some point, however, they decide there is some quaint, retro glory in these shows, and they decide that ‘it’s now okay’ to go back and like these shows again, as long as the individual qualifies those viewings as a guilty pleasure. I would not listen to these people regardless how prestigious others deem them to be, but to those that do listen, I would ask, ‘What gives them the credibility to decide for you?’ It would seem to me that they gain their bona fides solely by making the claim that they know what it is that’s ‘okay to like’ and what is not, and what should be listed as a guilty pleasure.

***

My lifelong enjoyment of Gilligan’s Island could be called a ‘guilty pleasure’, if the term is defined as: “Something, such as a movie, television program, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard.” I know how dumb and silly the show is. I also know that in the broad, cultural sense it has no redeemable qualities. Yet, I do not feel guilty about any association I may have had, or will continue to have with the show, and I have no problem floating back in time to that place in time when I watched Gilligan’s Island every day for years.

This leads to that silly argument of extension that suggests that anything one is not ashamed of, must be something for which they hold such a sense of pride that they should be willing and able to defend, and those that don’t do either are taking the spineless, Switzerland position of critiquing both sides while trying to avoid vulnerability on the point. I understand that complaint, but remember we are talking about television shows here, and if I were forced to mount a defense for this television show –to avoid the spineless Switzerland position– it would be made in defense of silliness.

Gilligan’s Island was silly and dumb, as I’ve said, but so was one of the most celebrated, critically acclaimed, and award winning shows of our time: Seinfeld.  If we were to break this brilliant show down to its core, we would find silliness. The keys to Seinfeld’s success, it would seem to me, lay in its creative way to turn a phrase, and its ability capture a comprehensive thought with creative brevity. The writers were also hell bent on making a story flow through an arc and return to the theme of an episode with a “no hugging and no learning” themed resolution.

Gilligan’s Island could be said to be one of the predecessors of this “no hugging and no learning” theme that would later specifically be employed Seinfeld. It could also be argued that most of the shows of that era were based on this “no hugging and no learning” theme, and that the cultural relevance brigade with their “applause ready” soundbites, “poignant, thought-provoking, and very special” plot lines, with lots of hugging, and learning, and crying came later. It could also be argued that Seinfeld, and its “no hugging and no learning” theme was a return to that era when sitcoms didn’t try to be more than they were. They just wanted to make people laugh in an era when no one felt guilty about doing just that.

If the reader knows anything about Gilligan’s Island, and a growing number of people do not, they know that Gilligan’s Island would never be confused with having anything to do with cultural relevance. The creator of the show, Sherwood Schwartz, stated as much when he said that if there was anything political about the show it existed in an intended apolitical theme. His exact quote, as listed in a Mental Floss piece on the show, was that Gilligan’s Island represented, “A metaphorical shaming of world politics in the sense that when necessary for survival, yes we can all get along.”

As a political person that has been reminded, throughout my life, how divisive politics can be, I think we could all benefit from more “no hugging and no learning” shows. The problems with such shows is that no one feels important watching them, and we all have a need to feel important. Some of us even strive so hard for importance that we claim that we watch shows we never watch, read books we have not read, and listen to important music that no one listens to. Silly shows will never make a person feel important, they will not win awards, TV critics won’t talk about them, and water cooler speakers don’t often talk about “no hugging and no learning” shows, or if they do, it’s not reported on by TV critics that consider these type of shows guilty pleasures.

Seinfeld is the exception to all of these statements, of course, but that show developed such a groundswell of popularity that it caught people by surprise. The quality of the writing on the show was never in question, but there was never a “very special” plot line that critics could wrap their arms around. Critics sought a seminal episode to explain the ethos, and the manner in which it intertwined with the culture, explained it, or rose above it. When none of that happened, they decided to ‘give us permission’ to like she show based on the ‘guilty pleasure’ of watching a show about nothing.

The problem for the other silly, non-award winning, and panned by TV critics’ shows, is that quality writers don’t want to write for them, as most formulaic shows that eschew politics in their “no hugging and no learning” apolitical themes offer little in the way of sprucing up resumes.

What’s hilarious about the world these cultural doyens draw up, with their ‘it’s okay to like’ and shows ‘it’s okay to dislike’ parameters, is that they’re often aghast when a cultural figure from the other side of the aisles decree that there are shows ‘it’s okay to like’ and shows ‘it’s okay to dislike’, based on that cultural figure’s political and psychological underpinnings. With no objective understanding of what they do, the cultural doyens chastise the cultural figures for having the temerity to suggest that they can dictate what anyone should or shouldn’t watch. These people then ask us to join them in directing a “very special” special finger at the dastardly decision makers that they believe should be granted exclusive rights to that finger. Yet, I believe if we viewed these arguments in an objective manner, we should be able find a “very special” place in our hearts to provide both sides that finger.

As Jennifer Szalai details in her The New Yorker piece, the term guilty pleasure is almost exclusive to America. She provides an example in the way of a Frenchman interviewing for a job in America, in which he was asked what his guilty pleasures were. The Frenchman was confused. He claimed that he had never heard the term, and that the best translation he could find applied to matters no one he knew talked about. If a Gilligan’s Island was popular among the cultural elites in France, in other words, no one would knew it, because they didn’t talk about it. In America, on the other hand, it’s something we enjoy talking about almost as much as we do watching the shows.

“You make sure to talk about (your guilty pleasures) –which is why the term exudes a false note, a mix of self-consciousness and self-congratulation. Aside from those actively seeking out public debasement, if you felt really, truly ashamed of it, you probably wouldn’t announce it to the world, would you? The guilt signals that you’re most comfortable in the élite precincts of high art, but you’re not so much of a snob that you can’t be at one with the people. So you confess your remorse whenever you deign to watch (a show like Gilligan’s Island) implying that the rest of your time is spent reading Proust.”

Rock and Roll is Dead!


“Rock and Roll is dead!” is a line most of us have heard for most of our lives. From the anthemic screams of punk rockers to the classic rockers suggesting, “Today’s music ain’t got the same soul,” everyone has enjoyed repeating a version of this line. For most of our lives, however, this has been little more than snarky criticism of the current status quo. For some of us, this has been based on the idea that our favorite strain of rock is no longer prominent, that we don’t appreciate the new direction rock was headed in, or that we have simply aged out of it. Looking at it from a rational perspective, rock and roll has always been able to survive based on young individuals developing creative derivatives of what came before them, and those derivatives have developed movements that led to greater sales and continued power, for rock in the music industry. On both planes, it does appear that either rock music is in a severe and prolonged downtrend, or that it may, in fact, be dead in terms of it being a powerful force in the music industry.

“For generations, rock music was always there, and it always felt like it would come back, no matter what the current trend happened to be,” Eddie Van Halen informed Chuck Klosterman in a 2015 interview. “For whatever reason, it doesn’t feel like it’s coming back this time.”

As Klosterman writes, in his book But What if We’re Wrong, Eddie Van Halen said this at sixty-years-old:

“So some might discount (Eddie Van Halen’s) sentiments as the pessimistic opinion of someone who’s given up on music. His view, however, is shared by rock musicians who were still chewing on pacifiers when Van Halen was already famous.”

Thirty-seven-year-old singer of the band Muse, Matt Bellamy, echoed Eddie’s statement saying:

“We live in a time where intelligent people –or creative, clever people– have actually chosen computers to make (sic) music. They’ve chosen (sic) to work in tech. There’s an exhaustion of intelligence which has moved out of the music industry and into other industries.”

Chuck Klosterman then adds:

“We’ve run out of teenagers with the desire (and potential) to become (the next) Eddie Van Halen. As far as the mass culture is concerned that time is over.”   

If the reader is as shocked as I was to read a high profile, classic hard rock performer, coupled with a more modern artist, and a rock enthusiast on par with Chuck Klosterman, discuss the end of an era in such a rational, and persuasive manner, you’re not alone. It does not appear to me that these individuals were intending to be provocative. They were suggesting that it now appears that those of us that proclaimed, “Rock and Roll will never die!” were wrong, and that historians may view rock and roll as nothing more than a prolonged, influential, and cultural trend. That trend may have been such a prolonged staple that it’s been around longer than most of us have been alive. Yet, if we are able to remove the emotion we have vested in the art form and examine it from the perspective of creativity and album sales, it is more than likely that hundreds of years from now historians will view rock and roll as a trend that began in the mid-to-late fifties and ended somewhere around 2010.

The Creative Power 

The one aspect of Bob Dylan’s memoir Chronicles that an interested reader will learn about the man, more than any other aspect of his life, is how much depth went into Bob Dylan’s artistic creations. Dylan writes about the more obvious, influential artists that affected him, such as Woody Guthrie, but he also writes about the obscure musicians he encountered on his path, that affected him in ways large and small. He also writes about the manner in which reading literature informed his artistic persona, reading everyone from prominent poets and fiction writers, to the Ancient Greek philosophers, and he finally informs us of how experiences in his life informed him. The reader will close the book with the idea that the young Dylan wasn’t seeking a road map to stardom so much as he was learning the art of craftsmanship.

On this subject of craft, as it pertains to the death of rock and roll, the bassist from Kiss, Gene Simmons, informed Esquire:

“The craft is gone, and that is what technology, in part, has brought us. What is the next Dark Side of the Moon? Now that the record industry barely exists, they wouldn’t have a chance to make something like that. There is a reason that, along with the usual top-40 juggernauts, some of the biggest touring bands are half old people, like me.”

On the subject of craft and being derivative, we could argue that Dark Side of the Moon was derivative. We could also argue that Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin were all derivative. We could argue that rock and roll, itself, derived from rhythm and blues, and that rhythm and blues derived their sound from the blues, jazz, and swing music. There is no sin in being derivative, in other words, as most artists derived something from another influence, but the question of how derivative an artist is has often haunted most artists that derived their craft from other, more obscure artists. The question most artists have had to ask, internally and otherwise, is how much personal innovation did they add to their influences? Perhaps more important to this discussion is a question of how much room was left in the zeitgeist for variation on the theme their influence created? To quote the cliché, a time will arrive in any art form, when a future artist is attempting to squeeze blood out of a turnip, and while the room for derivatives and variations on the broad theme of rock and roll seemed so vast at one time, every art form eventually runs into a wall.

One could say that the first wave of rock and roll that didn’t spend too much time worrying about being derivative was the Heavy Metal era of 80’s hair metal bands. One could also say that they didn’t have to search too deep, at that time, because the field still yielded such a bountiful harvest. All they had to do was provide a decent derivative of a theme some 70’s bands derived from some 60’s band that were derivatives of 50’s bands, and so on and so forth. There was still something so unique at the heart of what they were doing, in that space in time, that they could develop what amounted to a subtle variation of a theme and still be unique.

At some point in this chain of variations and strains, the wellspring dried up for 80’s hair metal bands, and they became a mockery of former artists, until rock and roll was in dire need a new template. At this point, right here, many proclaimed the death of rock and roll. They claimed that rock and roll was now more about hairspray, eyeliner, and MTV than actual music. Into that void, stepped Guns N’ Roses, Faith No More, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and others. They provided unique variations at the tail end of the 80’s and early 90’s. At various points in the timeline, a variation always stepped up to keep the beast alive, but hindsight informs us that rock and roll was, indeed, on life support at this time. Hindsight also informs us, that when the 90’s Seattle bands, and The Smashing Pumpkins, stepped to the fore, their derived variation on the theme was, in essence, a reset of the template that had been lost somewhere in the late 80’s, as they brought rock back to the early Kiss, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith records of the 70’s.

This begs the question, would Nirvana have been as huge as they were, if they had appeared on the scene around 1983-1984, or would that have been too early for them. Are musical waves little more than a question of timing? Did Nirvana hit the scene at a time when the desire to recapture whatever was lost in the late 80’s was widespread? The Nevermind album may have been so good that it would’ve sold in just about any rock era, but would Nevermind have outsold Quiet Riot’s Mental Health and Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry, or would it have been too derivative of an era we just experienced. Would Nevermind have been the ten million copies shipped phenomenon it was if it hit the scene in 1984, or was it a valiant attempt to recapture what was lost in rock that we needed at the time?

Most of the musicians, in what rock critics called the grunge movement, had varied tastes, and some of their favorite artists were more obscure than the general public’s, but the basic formula for what would critics called grunge could be found in those four groups of musicians, from the 70’s, that had deep and varied influences. The grunge era, we could say, was the last innovative movement for nuanced rock.

Talk to just about any young person in America today, and they may list off some modern artists and groups that they listen to, but most of those that could be considered rock connoisseurs will provide “classic rock” band as one of their favorite genres. When someone my age hears the term classic rock, they’re more prone to think of one of the 70’s bands mentioned earlier, but these young people are referring to bands that were brand new to me somewhere around yesterday, yesterday being twenty years ago.

I know I run the risk of being dismissed as an old fogy when I declare rock dead, or something along the lines of “Today’s music ain’t got the same soul”, but there is something that is missing. In fairness to modern artists, and in full recognition of my old codger perspective, I have to ask how the “next big thing” will pop out, right now, in 2016, and offer the world a perspective on rock that no one has ever considered before? Such a statement does undercut the creative brilliance that young minds have to offer, but to those of us that have listened to everyone from top of the line artists to some of the more obscure artists in recording history, it seems to me that every genre, subgenre, experimentation, and variation has been covered to this point.

Gene Simmons asked where the next Dark Side of the Moon is going to come from, I ask where the next Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is, and it may be a question that led those of another era to ask what artist is the modern day equivalent to The Carter Family? I never thought I’d be this guy, but most of the modern rock music sounds uninformed and lacking in the foundation that previous generations had. I know this is largely incorrect, but when I listen to the rock bands of the current era, I don’t hear that long, varied search for influence. I don’t hear artists hearkening back the rich and varied tradition old blues singers, folk musicians, and country artists learned from their family and friends in gospel songs at church, at campfires, and at night before going to bed. I don’t hear an informed artistic persona. Their music lacks some of the organic funk R&B musicians brought to the fold, and the intricate instrumentation that the 50’s and 60’s jazz musicians left for their successors to mine.

Some consider this entire argument moot, however, and they say that the nature of music and art in general, suggests that there will always be an innovative, up and coming star to develop variations and derivatives of former artists if there is money in it. Naysayers would echo their favorite artists and say it’s not about the money, and true art never should be. While that may be true, it is also true that when the money is removed, as the Gene Simmons quote below states, there may not be people in the upper reaches of the chain that are willing to develop that talent, when the whole model is thrown into chaos, and the structure of it is destroyed.

It’s About the Money. It’s Always About the Money.

“You’re (now considered) a sucker if you pay for music,” one of my friends informed me at what was, for me, the advent of file sharing. 

My friend did not say the words “now considered” but that was the import of his statement. I was no Luddite. I knew about the file sharing sites, such as Napster, but for me, Napster was a place to find obscure throwaways, bootlegged versions of the songs I loved, and cover songs, by my favorite artists. I learned of the Metallica lawsuit against Napster, and some talk of file sharing among the young, but I had no idea that the crossover to file sharing had already begun, for most music enthusiasts, until my friend dropped this line on me.

The line did not inform me of the new way of attaining music, as I already knew it was out there, but it informed me of the new mindset in regards to accessing music. After scouring these sites for my favorite songs, albums, and artists, (and finding them, waiting to be downloaded for free) one thing became crystal clear, this was going to change everything. I read of the music industry hauling young people into court after illegally downloading music, but my astute, file sharing friend said he believed that the music industry was desperate, and that they were trying to scare people. He correctly predicted that the music industry would stop trying to prosecute people and simply give in. He said that they should’ve done something long before this point (and this point was very early on in the age of file sharing) to cash in on the file sharing wave. He said that there were simply too many people, from his small corner of the world, downloading music for free, for the music industry to prosecute them all.

File sharing, say some, may have spelled the true death of rock and roll as a profitable, cultural force in America today. I write this as a qualifier for those that will suggest that the idea that a bunch of kids sitting in a garage to develop a new sound will never die. It may not, but reading through Gene Simmons’ interview in Esquire, a reader learns of the type of support that new musicians need from execs in the upper echelon of the music industry to help them progress from garage rockers to a cultural force in America, and that that part of the structure has been destroyed by file sharing. To belabor this point for just a moment, we would all prefer to believe that our favorite musicians had little regard for money, or corporate influence, but how much of the sound of an album was tweaked, finessed, and completed by industry money? Listen to insiders speak of a final product, and they’ll tell the reader that the album doesn’t sound anything like it might have without a high quality producer, and it doesn’t sound anything like it did before the corporate mixer came in and put in some finishing touches that those of us in the audience know nothing about.

Rock and roll’s appeal has always been a young person’s game, however, and that makes most of the derivative argument moot. Most young people live in the now, and young people have never cared that their favorite artist happened to be a hybrid between The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, at least not to the point that they wouldn’t buy their favorite artists’ albums. As far as they were concerned, their favorite band’s sound, and look, was fresh, original, and theirs.

“My sense is that file sharing started in predominantly white, middle- and upper-middle-class young people who were native-born, who felt they were entitled to have something for free, because that’s what they were used to,” Gene Simmons also said in the Esquire interview. “If you believe in capitalism — and I’m a firm believer in free-market capitalism — then that other model is chaos. It destroys the structure.”

Death of the Album

Scouring these file sharing sites, and creating personalized playlists, I also sensed a death of the album. As an album-oriented listener, I always thought one could arrive at the artistic persona of a musician in the deeper cuts of an album. My philosophy was written out by Sting, and his, “Anyone can write a hit, but it takes an artist to write an excellent album” quote. I was affected by the new file-sharing mindset almost immediately, as I began to consider it a waste of time to listen to the various Queen Jane Approximately cuts, when I could create a playlist filled with top shelf, Like a Rolling Stone cuts from various artists.

The idea of the self-directed, playlist mindset developed somewhere around the advent of the cassette tape, an era that predated me, but the full album managed to maintain most of its glory throughout that era. For most of my life, the power of a quality single led concertgoers to leap out of their seat and rush the stage. With all these new tools, however, a person no longer has to stand around for an hour waiting for the band to take the stage. They no longer have to sit through mind-numbing guitar solos, and witty banter from the lead singer to get to the one song they liked from that artist. They could now go to a site like YouTube to watch their favorite singer sing that quality single.

I still think that the lack of depth in most products current artists put out is a factor in the demise of rock as a force in the industry. I am persuaded that that is not the case by the idea that young people know as little about the history of their music as their favorite artists do, however, and what little they do know is superseded by how little they care about it.

I am also convinced that file sharing has had an effect, if not a devastating effect, on the structure from top to bottom. Another writer had an interesting take on this matter, stating that the file sharing mindset may have something to do with young people growing up watching their favorite artists display their wares on shows like MTV’s Cribs. Shows like these may have led young people to think that their favorite artist has enough money as it is, and the shows may have led the young people to download the music for free without guilt. Which, in turn, led them to believe anyone that plopped down money for music to be an absolute sucker.

“They’re not going to miss any meals if I deprive them of my $9.99,” they may say. That may be true in the case of this individual, but what happens when millions of people begin sharing this mindset? What happens is that when we begin removing the $9.99 bricks that formed the foundation of the industry, we destroy the industry, as we knew it. They will sign fewer rock artists, they will no longer hire all those little guys that finished the product, and they will no longer provide support or promotion to an album that would’ve garnered it before, because there’s little-to-no money in it for any of the players, on any level.

Whether it’s the lack of depth, or the idea that music no longer affords an artist enough money to make an honest living at it, thanks to file sharing, it does appear that the starving artist walking around with nothing more than a guitar strapped to his back has become an endangered animal in America today, and the consequences for that could run deep for a culture that has subsisted on the philosophical foundation of rock music for as long as most of us have been alive.

Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait


Self-Portrait is the tenth studio album of Bob Dylan’s catalog, and in my opinion, his most personal. Some say Blood on the Tracks. I say Blood on the Tracks captured a brief time in Bob Dylan’s life, but Self-Portrait appears to tell the musical tale of the influences and history of Bob Dylan to that point in his career, dating back to his early days in Minnesota and his early years spent in New York. I believe the album showcases the artistic heritage, through original pieces and cover songs, that led to Bob Dylan wanting to be an artist in the first place. I believe this album was such a personal note to Dylan that when the criticism hit the fan, it cut deep into a man that didn’t know negative reviews at that point in his career, and this led him to try and create some distance between himself and what I believe to be his most vulnerable album.

This is a subjective review of one album in Bob Dylan’s catalog that accounts for the top-of-the-line brilliance of what some critics simply call “the fifty-six songs” from the five albums that preceded Self-Portrait. This reviewer was intimately familiar with those albums prior to listening to Self-Portrait, but Self-Portrait was so maligned that I didn’t even bother investigating it. This review is also based on the advantage of coupling Self-Portrait with the Another Self-Portrait album from the Bootleg Series, an advantage some critics may say is unfair since the latter provided clarity on the former. This review is also made from the vantage point of viewing this album as nothing more than another album. The critics, of this era, were used to nothing but top-of-the-line brilliance from Bob Dylan, and in that light they viewed Self-Portrait as a legendary failure, when compared to the first nine albums.

Self-PortraitSelf-Portrait, as I see it, is a collection of songs that didn’t fit into Dylan’s prior albums. It is a pastiche album in the manner The Beatles’ The White Album, Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, and Pavement’s Wowee Zowee albums were pastiche albums. There is no over-arching theme to such albums, no cohesion between songs, and the entire effort appears –to the naked eye– to be a throw off, at least in comparison to the artists’ other, more structured albums. The danger of pastiche albums, for their artists, is that their appeal will often be exclusive to other artists. Devout fans may even be disappointed by a pastiche album, for a devout fan is devoted to the artist for reasons that a pastiche album may not satisfy. Even in the selections of which songs to cover, and how to translate them, the artist reveals themselves on a level they may not have on prior albums.

When a musician lands a record deal, their first album is often an assemblage of songs that could be called a greatest hits collection of everything they’ve developed to that point. It’s the best of the best material they’ve written in an effort to land a record deal, and the reason they were signed in the first place. This is often followed by the demand for a second album, an album that tends to be a rushed effort that seeks to cash in on the success of the first record. Somewhere along the line, and this point in an artist’s career varies with the artist, as it did with Bob Dylan, they move past the more top-of-the-line, flowery brilliance of their work to their roots. If the artist is a true artist, as opposed to being little more than a rock and roll star, and they’ve been writing material at the pace a true artist will, they will accumulate a wealth of material that carries special meaning to them, and as we’ve seen with the Bootleg Series, Dylan was more prolific than most gave him credit for. For reasons specific to the project, the recording chieftains, the producer of the record, etc., these vagabond songs never made it on the prior albums, but they continued to have a special place in the artist’s heart.

It’s vital, at this point in an artist’s career, that they achieve something in their industry with their top-of-the-line, creative brilliant creations that allows them to be immune to studio chieftains’ and rock critics’ complaints of such an album. It is a bold move to release such an album, and the artist will need this immunity, and a level of confidence in their ability that leads them to be less vulnerable to outside opinion.

Bob Dylan was at a point in his career where he could release whatever he produced, but he was not immune to the criticism from the critics. Bob Dylan chose to portray Self-Portrait as a statement of rebellion against the ‘voice of a generation’ moniker he had received, and he made various other statements to distance himself from the album, but I believe that these statements were defensive statements made to avoid revealing how much pain he felt as a result of the album’s reception. After reading through a number of Bob Dylan’s explanations for creating this album, or putting it together, I find myself empathizing with Bob Dylan. Who wouldn’t attempt to gain some distance from an artistic creation that was pummeled by “those in the know”?

I believe it was a mechanism he used to inform the world that their attempts to pour salt in the wound did not affect him, and that Self-Portrait was nothing more than a pre-emptive attack against those that would attack him for revealing his more vulnerable side. One could also theorize that the criticism hurt his ego in a way that caused him to rethink the project. To this point, Dylan had been told he was a genius, a ‘voice of a generation’, and as much as Dylan stated that he loathed that title, saying he was “just a guy that wrote songs”, it had to hurt a little to have those titles stripped from him, as opposed to him disavowing them. Therefore, he basically tried to give the project a deeper meaning that would redefine it, so he wouldn’t have to deal with the pain the criticism caused. I could be wrong, of course, but that’s my interpretation.

As opposed to the other three pastiche albums listed above, Self-Portrait was met with scathing, critical reviews. This may have been based on the fact that the critics didn’t think it was a very good album, and it may have based on the fact that the previous nine studio albums were labeled masterpieces by those same critics, and Self-Portrait was viewed as a fall from that lofty plateau. It also may be a result, and this is pure opinion, of the fact that most critics have never attempted to write a song, a novel, or do anything artistic. Their job is exclusive to criticizing those that do. Having said that, some critics have suggested that the rushed follow up of the album New Morning, four months later, was Bob Dylan’s attempt to get the world to forget that Self-Portrait ever happened.

Most apply the term ‘artist’ as a compliment to define the creator of artistic brilliance, but the term can be loosely applied to almost anyone that attempts to create art. There are poor artists and brilliant artists, in other words, but there is an almost universal mindset that those that attempt to create art share. When I write that I am an artist, therefore, no one should confuse the term artist with an egotistical leap.

As an artist that attempts to create art, and spends a great deal of time contemplating the art of creation, I may have a different interpretation of art than those that experience it from a critical perspective, or those for whom art is little more than background noise that requires top-of-the-line, creative brilliance to wake them from their hypnagogic slumber. An artist strives to understand another artist’s attempt at the point of inception, and they look beyond another artist’s top-of-the-line, creative brilliance to find it.

In an appearance on The Charlie Rose Show, Robbie Robertson of The Band, said: “Something happened to (Bob Dylan) in his youth where he just decided to write off all the rules.”

This quote gets to the core of this fascination for some of us. What happens in the life of a person that leads them to seek artistic nuance? We’ve all had bad things happen to us that form a foundation we spend the rest of our lives trying to recover from, or rebel against. We’ve all had great people in our lives that have encourage us to be even better, and those people help motivate us to do something on our own that defies the conventions and rules of our craft to do something different, but there is something different that happens in the formulation of an artist that goes onto create Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. What happened that set him apart? Was it a degree of pain that most don’t experience? Was he inordinately encouraged by those around him when he grew up, and what combination of events led to Bob Dylan developing such a unique perspective on music.

Those of us that have grown up in a world where Bob Dylan was always there, don’t understand how much he did in his time to shake everything up. The idea that Dylan changed the way music was written is almost a universally accepted fact. Did he change things more than Brian Wilson, The Beatles, or later Led Zeppelin? It would be an interesting argument, but in his own ways Dylan did change the landscape. What happened to these transformative artists that led them to not only believe that they had what it took to be transformative but to act it out in a bold and transformative manner, and can the answer to this question be found in their art?

As an artist that has spent a great deal of time discovering the top-of-the-line, creative genius of the fifty-six songs on Bringing it All Back HomeHighway 61 RevisitedBlonde on BlondeJohn Wesley Harding, and Nashville Skyline, I didn’t bother investigating Self-Portrait. It was considered a two-star album, and a generally accepted failure. As an artist that has had his more vulnerable pieces slammed by his critics (friends of mine), I understand Dylan’s attempt to make everyone forget his self-portrait. I equate this album to Dylan getting naked for us, on record, and revealing himself in a manner that when people basically pointed and giggled at his vulnerabilities for the effort, it hurt. At the time of its release, some have said that Dylan was one of the most powerful artists in the world, and when he displayed the courage to get vulnerable for us, we ridiculed him for it.

As many have said, Self-Portrait is not a starting point, and its appeal may be limited to those that have already thoroughly digested the top-of-the-line, creative genius of the fifty-six songs on the prior five albums, but to my mind Bob Dylan didn’t separate himself from those in that top-of-the-line, creative geniuses argument, until I heard Self-Portrait. My definitions are not your definitions, of course, but those five prior albums didn’t speak to me on another, artistic level in the manner Self-Portrait did. I had reached a point, in my listening enjoyment, to recognize that Dylan had to be in the argument, in other words, but I never knew him as an artist until I heard Self-Portrait, and the Another Self Portrait edition of the bootleg series.

Top Ten Songs from both albums, for those looking to sample the best singles from this album (in no particular order).

  • Living the Blues.
  • Take Me as I Am (Or Let me go)
  • Gotta Travel On
  • (Quinn The Eskimo) The Mighty Quinn
  • Alberta #1
  • Working on a Guru
  • In Search of Little Sadie
  • Time Passes Slowly #1
  • This Evening So Soon
  • Pretty Saro