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E26. Lou Reed’s Nephew on Illustrious Failures
“There can be no such thing as an optimized masterpiece.”
“Have you ever witnessed an illustrious failure?” Lou Reed’s Nephew asked.
“You’ll have to be more specific.”
“Routine failures are a dime a dozen, but illustrious failures? You never forget them. I’m collecting them. Now that I have become an expert in success through failure, I need examples to support my theory.”
“Aren’t theories supposed to proceed from examples, rather than the other way around?”
“Can you at least give me an example?” I said.
“Yes. I have this friend, Todd Blin, who is a comedian.”
“The Todd Blin?
“The same. He has reemerged after paying his debt to society.”
“He’s trying to make it as a comedian, since he is otherwise unemployable. Going to open mics, things like that. His material is good. Relevant. Edgy. But he always bombs. Audiences hate him. He asked me to come and evaluate the situation.”
“As an expert in performance?”
“As someone who hates comedy,” he said. “What could be less funny than comedy? But I didn’t let this color my evaluation.”
“And while it was obvious that, based on comedy norms, he should have been ‘murdering,’ he was just as obviously missing something.”
“Well, his humor was self-deprecating—as is required, so as not to appear cruel—but it was clear to me, and to the audience, that he did not actually hate himself.”
“He was only pretending to hate himself?”
“Yes. It was a pose. Todd always had a world-historical confidence, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. He is still quite a vision. Translucent skin, a full head of bright red hair. A natural troublemaker, like Johnny Rotten or Sonic the Hedgehog. He is striking—you can imagine the effect in a blue blazer and tie when we were both thirteen—and he knows it. He loves himself and people can tell. Self-love combined with self-deprecation is smugness—a kissing cousin of smarm. Audiences could smell it on him.
“Was he able to address this shortcoming?”
“I didn’t bring it up. I knew it would never get through. You could never tell Todd Blin anything. He was just like Lenin, even when we were kids.”
“So how do you think he will fare?”
“His situation is hopeless, I’m afraid,” Lou Reed’s Nephew said. “But at least his failure is illustrious, as Todd Blin’s always have been. He was a promising photographer when we were teenagers, you know.”
“Todd has been into everything.”
“Yes. He is my muse of unsuccess,” Lou Reed’s Nephew said. “His photography technique was interesting. He never used the viewfinder. He taped over them on all his digital cameras—remember those, machines that only took pictures—to shield himself from temptation. And then he would randomly wave the camera in the air, at arm’s length, like he was hailing a cab, letting it snap wildly.”
“How were the results?”
“Usually terrible, occasionally sublime. They lacked something, as with his comedy, but what they lacked was interesting. One could sense they were not like normal photographs, which—whether we are aware of it are not—are suspended on a thin filament projected by the photographer’s gaze. However slim this wire may be, you miss it when it’s gone. Todd Blin’s photographs had no such wire, which made them eerie, like what the world will be like when we’re gone.”
“You and me?”
“You, me, everyone. They were homely, in both senses of the word.”
“There is more than one sense?”
“Yes. The English use it in a completely different way. I learned that at Camel Toe, when I almost came to blows over it with Evan L. from Leeds. An old goth who was a stickler for language. For them, it has a cozy meaning, more like ‘homey,’ but we use it to mean plain or unattractive. Both are right, since there is something repulsive about familiarity and something familiar about ugliness. In any case, the word itself— “homely”—is evidence against the complaint that English is an impoverished language that has no translation for important foreign words.”
“Who says that?”
“Some philostagrammers I follow. Teutonic assholes. German has words we can’t possibly translate, they say, like unheimlich and aufehebung. But we have a perfectly good translation for unheimlich in ‘homely.’”
“How is it usually translated?”
“I guess the X-Men sort of used that up?”
“Marvel has destroyed so many words. ‘Amazing.’ ‘Incredible.’”
“What happened to Todd Blin’s photography career?”
“It collapsed with the introduction of the iPhone. The view finder was too large, too clear, too seductive, like Narcissus’s pool. You can’t tape over that screen like some vampire, not if you want to watch your follower counts climb.”
“He started taking selfies, like everyone else. Overpopulated photographs containing only himself. But my point is that failures of inadequacy are everywhere and boring. Failures that emerge from wrong-headed fidelity are something else entirely. In them, success and failure grow from the same root, like twins conjoined at the heart. Todd Blin’s confidence gives him the ability to get on stage but robs him of relatability. His cavalier attitude toward artistic intent led to what brilliance he had, but at the cost of consistency. When the flaw was remedied, the magic disappeared. That’s the key to an illustrious failure.”
“It does remind me of someone,” I said. “A kid who came around the scene in the ’90s.”
“The music scene.”
“Right. I forgot. The ’60s had counter cultures; your people had scenes.”
“What about your people?”
“Moral panics followed by purges, but go on: A boy walks into a scene …”
“He just showed up one day. He was fresh from the suburbs, where we had all started out. He had assembled a strange set of influences, fashioned from records that came his way from sisters and uncles and record store clerks in Tarrytown or wherever. He’d taken these, held two friends hostage, and formed a band. The band was called Of Course the Mansions, for obscure reasons, which we then valued above all else. Obscurity.
“This happens all the time—or used to—the band-formation process, but in most cases it is driven by superficial forces. Someone wants to be famous or get laid or land a record deal they don’t deserve. But Sipp—Sipp was his name—would have summoned these forces wherever, and likely whenever, he had been, because he was born to make music. Sipp was short for Mississippi.”
“He was from the South?” Lou Reed’s Nephew asked.
“I think his family was French-Canadian. But you would never have detected Sipp’s talent by talking to him. He was an awkward seventeen-year-old who blushed at compliments, but onstage he was transformed. He wore his guitar up high like a medieval troubadour and was as in command from the microphone as he was invisible in the crowd. He closed his eyes, transported, as he dripped lyrics into the microphone like Xanax into the water supply. His music was slow and hypnotic, a subcontinental thrum.
“I discovered him by accident, when my job was to go to events at places and write about them. I had been assigned to write about kids who were performing in abandoned warehouses. They toured from town to town, crashing on people’s couches, selling just enough stuff to get to the next town. (Come to think of it, these places and events would not even count as places or events in any of the databases Ulugbek and I had seen, compiled, or ingested. They were too impermanent, even for the Internet.) The spirit was noble, but the music was terrible. Aimless, tuneless, blasts of rage.
“But when Sipp took the stage, everything changed. Everyone in the room knew, all it once, that while seconds before they had been consoling themselves with the modest palliatives of raw expression, they were now in the presence of something else—what used to be called art.”
“How did you know?” Lou Reed’s Nephew asked. “That everyone saw it the way you did?”
“My first piece of evidence that this was the case—not just in my opinion, but objectively—was the mass conversion experience. Art teaches the appreciator how to appreciate it, and Sipp’s music did this instantly. People had come for something else, found this, yet immediately recognized what it was.”
“Still too romantic for my taste. Did he at least have fans?”
“Fans? He had disciples. They came in right on time and sat on the floor, between the stage and the mosh pit. They sat cross-legged, boys and girls, in sweaters and espadrilles, like they were attending a séance. Kids I had never seen before.”
“You’re talking about slowcore.”
“Maybe, yes. But at its dawn, before it had a name. At the beginning of something, the first time you’ve ever seen it. Before it has become common, then trite, then finally cliché. I know the name of the person who introduced me to U2. Can you imagine? A world before U2? I can’t, but I know the name of the person who ushered me from the pre-U2 world into the world we live in now. The world where Bono obtains. His name was Kyle.”
I felt emptier for having mentioned his name. I hadn’t seen Kyle in years.
“You are a hopeless romantic,” Lou Reed’s Nephew said. “I had no idea.”
“Whether it would appear so now—and I agree that it wouldn’t—what Sipp ushered into the world through the portal that was just himself was a new way of being. Everyone in the room knew it, as sure as the disciples recognized Jesus. There it was. Unprocessed. Practically unobserved. Pure, spontaneous genius.”
“You have convinced me he was illustrious,” Lou Reed’s Nephew said. “ButI’m impatient for the failure.”
“It was spectacular,” I assured him. “It was not long before the scene caught up with Sipp. His mesmerism launched him to the center of things, which is a dangerous place to be.”
“And it destroyed his talent?”
“Worse. It spurred his talent to destroy itself.”
“Tell me more!” Lou Reed’s Nephew was delighted.
“When he first gained recognition, he could tell something was off, somewhere inside himself, but he didn’t know what it was. He wasn’t getting from the audience what he had gotten before. He got some of it, sure, but it was now mixed with other things. A modicum of fame. Jealousy, maybe. A touch of buzz. His delicate mechanism didn’t know how to interpret this weakening of the signal between himself and the audience, so he tried harder.
“Art is a disastrous thing to try harder at. You can run faster or lift heavier weights but pushing harder with art is bound to fail because art is not a quantity. Art is a balance, a balance that every work of art, and every artist, is moving toward or away from. What is called for is not the greatest exertion, but the most appropriate.”
“True,” Lou Reed’s Nephew said. “There can be no such thing as an optimized masterpiece.”
“Panicking, Sipp redoubled his efforts toward his twin muses of softness and subtlety. While his hypnotic thrums had been slow, they became slower, and though quiet, they became quieter. He had no time for his new downtown friends—so single-mindedly was he focused on this self-purification—and they abandoned him. He pushed on, alone, frustratedly trying to tune into the crowd—to turn them on like he once had—like a faraway radio station, until …”
“Until?” Lou Reed’s Nephew was always impatient, but never with this much anticipation. The story of Sipp had him hooked.
“Until silence. His playing became so slow, subtle, and faint, that not even his earliest fans—on their knees in front of the stage, their ears pressed to the speakers—could detect it.”
There was a long moment of silence between Lou Reed’s Nephew and I before I spoke again.
“Does that count as an illustrious failure?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, with notes of awe and sadness. “I think you’ve nailed it.”