Friday, May 5, 2017

Was Jackson Pollock Any Good?

Abstract Expressionism in itself is an enigma, but the question about Pollock is one that we've asked for nearly 70 years, mostly without satisfaction: "I could have done that!" is the typical response to Pollock's work.

"Yeah, but you didn't," Is the appropriate response.

Composer, Aaron Copeland, once said, "If a literary person puts together two words about music, one of them will be wrong." It was Copeland’s strong arm response to criticism of his music. For his review in Allmusic, Jason Ankeny wrote of Neutral Milk Hotel, "Lo-fi, yet lush, In An Aeroplane Over the Sea is either the work of an utter genius or a crackpot."  He could have written the same thing about Pollock.  The truth, he concluded, is "somewhere in-between." In this we have one of those debatables, like Pollock's abilities, or, for our intent and purpose, deciphering whether Jim Morrison was a poet or a slapdash poser?

I'm sure about Pollock.  Art has a social context and response to popular culture.  Warhol's response was to grasp the broader picture of corporate design.  Pollock's was simple rebellion, but there was more.  He wasn't just slapping paint on canvas, he was purposefully aiming for something different, and there was method to it.  He'd lay out his huge canvases on the floor of the studio and the action of painting, the process, the alcohol, the women, the cigarette ash, were an inherent component of the painting itself.  The fact that he died tragically in a seemingly suicidal automobile accident, taking a stranger along with him, fits right in with this scenario as a part of the process.

The same is true of Morrison. Indeed, Robert Pattison, Professor of English at Long Island University (not the silver vampire guy from those movies with the homely girl) says, "I'm not sure there's any prestige in a rock lyricist also claiming the title of poet. My guess is that the prestige runs the other way." I like that. It kind of ends the debate. Morrison was as good a lyricist as Pollock was a painter and the action of painting writing, the process, the alcohol, the women, the cigarette ash, were an inherent component of the painting lyric itself.  The fact that he died tragically in a seemingly suicidal automobile accident bathtub incident, taking a stranger girlfriend along with him [inevitably], fits right in with this scenario as a part of the process. 

Pattison’s credo boils down to this: excellent rock songs, boring poems. "Why are slim volumes of deep thought superior to young rants? I think Morrison would be getting a demotion to be moved to the Poetry Foundation website." Pattison continues, "I think the fact the words are written for rock makes a difference. Try comparing Kurt Cobain's lyrics with the poems he scribbled down. Millions justifiably remember the former; the latter are trite and embarrassing."

Some would insist that rock lyrics are incidental, that they are just another musical component. Were that the case, wouldn't the common-law conclusion be that guitar-players are any bands "leader" by default? But is that the case? Jon Anderson leaves Yes, it's not Yes anymore. Peter Gabriel leaves Genesis/Ian Curtis kills himself, better release an LP with a replacement part that sounds exactly like the original. And were the case true, wouldn't there be gobs more instrumentals than there are? Oh, I love me my interludes in "Close to the Edge" and The Cure's seemingly endless instrumental intros, but isn't it the vocals, the lyrics, that provide the protein of a rock song's diet (guitars are vegetables)? Lyrics are the poetic devise that Gorilla-glues rock music into something cohesive; i.e it's the poetry that counts most.

But what about Morrison? Here, it's simple too; same argument as Cobain. Despite Morrison's perpetual insistence in the top ten of Amazon poetry sales, The Lords and the New Creatures is nothing more than a really good title for fluff and banal silliness, while "The End," "When the Music's Over" and "Riders on the Storm," are as poetic as Eliot, and far more accessible. There are far better "poets" in rock music than Morrison, think Joni Mitchell, Morrissey, Patti Smith, Bernie Taupin, Leonard Cohen, Fiona Apple, Springsteen or Dylan, but the reality is, when the music's over the instructions are clear: turn out the light.