Tuesday, August 21, 2018

L.H.O.O.Q.

There's a take on the Mona Lisa by Marcel DuChamp in which the painting is recreated with the letters L.H.O.O.Q. stenciled across the bottom. When pronounced phonetically in French (el-aash-o-o-cool), it mimics the line "She's got a hot ass." It was DuChamp's way of stating what Walter Benjamin theorized in the essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in which he argues that mechanical reproduction destroys the aura of an artwork, stripping it from the unique contexts that surround it. Back in the day, one had to actually go somewhere to view a statue or listen to music; today we can conjure images, sounds, and replicas of images and sounds in books, on stereos, TVs, and laptops, indeed on street corners where vendors sell mouse pads with Leonardo's painting. That's mechanical reproduction. Snatched from museums and performance halls and scattered throughout the world, art has lost the determinate surroundings, purpose, and framings that, in another era, were nearly inseparable from it.

But doesn't recorded music negate Benjamin's thesis? Should we only hear music in a venue with the musician there before us? I wish. Take me back to Pink Floyd in Pompeii, to Tom Waits at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, or to Joni anywhere. Three wishes would include a day at the very very very nice house. The point being that Benjamin's thesis is a crock and the whole argument about aura strikes me as simplistic, if not outright mistaken. Haven't books and other written artworks been subject to mechanical reproduction for as long as they've existed, and haven't they still managed to command unique and powerful auras? 

Nothing poses so forceful a challenge to the argument as a work like Joni Mitchell's Blue, which elegantly and affectingly succeeds in evoking the aura of a particular moment, even nearly 50 years later. Take the track, "The Last Time I Saw Richard." There is a reference to 1968 in the opening line identifying the time of the event, a precise moment in time that situates the narration around that year, but long enough after so that the speaker could refer to it with a distance that phrasing implies. There's the mention of the Wurlitzer in a "dark cafĂ©" where the song takes place, which corroborates the circa-1970 feel. And then there are the "dishwasher and coffee percolator" that Richard buys for his figure skater wife as he sinks into domestic anonymity.

"Richard" is possibly Chuck Mitchell, briefly Joni's first husband, and also her musical partner in the early 1960s. We learn that, Richard/Chuck was subsequently married to a figure skater who bought her shit and drinks by himself in front of the TV. It's lay it on the confessional journalism that on first hearing, friend, Kris Kristofferson opined, "Oh Joni – save something of yourself!" That kind of 3D honesty, even on the 53,000th pressing of Blue, unravels Benjamin's silly premise to the core (in the same way that John Lennon’s "God" cannot be analyzed with T.S. Eliot's objective correlative – the idea that great poetry requires no knowledge of the poet). In "Richard" as with the entirety of Blue, Mitchell creates the most poignant disillusionment in song. It's nearly the opposite of what we find in "All I Want" in which Joni croons, "I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you some…" Instead, in "Richard," the line would read, "I loved some, but I hate you now;" hate at its most visceral.

All that said, Joni Mitchell's Blue is the fucking Mona Lisa and it doesn't matter if you missed seeing her live in '71, Blue is the most poignant LP of the 70s. Okay, want to make it the most authentic experience possible? Go on eBay or to your favorite vinyl shop and buy it, an original issue on Reprise, but only in VG condition (there should be some rattle and hum). That ought to do it.