[In the past, I've written short blurbs for each of the year's 100 Songs. Some of these "short blurbs" were actually thousands of words long, but you get the idea. This year, sadly, I didn't have time to do that. But I still have a lot to say about almost all of these songs. So I'm just going to start writing. This is one of a still-undetermined number of essays. Maybe I'll find something to say about all 100 Songs. Maybe there will just be a handful of these. I'll try to write one every day, but I make no promises. Also, they will be in no real order. In case it gets buried, the original 100 Songs for 2011 post, with links, can be found here.]
What We Talk About When We Talk About The Bear Coat
Here are some facts you will need to know for the rest of this essay to make sense:
(1) The Bear Coat is kind of a vanity studio project, the brainchild of two guys from Brooklyn. They do not tour. They do not appear on Hype Machine. However, their two albums, 2009's self-titled debut and 2011's Adding Mass, are available on both Amazon and iTunes. The most popular song on their MySpace page has been accessed 543 times. That should give you some rough idea of the commercial success of The Bear Coat.
(2) One half of The Bear Coat is a man named Jason Parks. Mr. Parks is a Texan. He is a freelance baseball scout, a blogger at both Lone Star Ball and Texas Farm Review, and a contributor for Baseball Prospectus. Mr. Parks is also co-host of BP's Up and In Podcast, of which I am a subscriber and a religious listener. I learned about The Beat Coat through this podcast. For reasons that I cannot fathom, Mr. Parks does not have a Wikipedia page.
(3) "Steady Til Stuck" is a pretty excellent song. As with the rest of The Bear Coat's output, I highly recommend it, especially for fans of Rogue Wave or Elliott Smith. If forced to choose, I would probably recommend the first album, especially the "Operation Stiletto," "Butter," "Career Fabulist" section. The fact that I'm probably not going to mention any actual music again in the course of this essay should not in any way be taken as a slight against the band. Please go buy both Bear Coat albums.
When I was a kid, art was made by celebrities. This was almost a tautology. If I was aware of a piece of art, it was by definition made by a celebrity. I was living in a town of 5,000 people, before the internet. For a decent amount of that time, my family didn't have cable TV. If I heard a song, it was a song by an artist on a major label, with a national distribution deal. If I read a column in a magazine, the author likely had a subscriber base in the hundreds of thousands. If I read a book, it was by an author whose publishing house was large enough to stock books at Barnes & Noble. If I was aware of a piece of art, it was almost implied that the creator of that piece of art was a successful artist. Famous, independently wealthy, able to draw on the resources of a powerful corporation whose business was art creation. This is where art came from. Art was made by capital-A Artists, international celebrities.
When I was a kid, it was easy to understand why not everyone was an Artist.
And I don't mean to use "resources of a powerful corporation" as a thinly-veiled reference to selling out, like you had to be a shill for The Man to get your voice heard. What I mean is this: When I listened to The Beatles, I knew the stories of those songs. I knew about Abbey Road studios and Apple Records and the genius of George Martin and Brian Epstein and everyone who made The Beatles possible. I knew if they needed a full symphony orchestra for a song, they would get it, possibly that day. If they needed Eric Clapton for a song, he would stop by.
These incredible production excesses seemed to filter down to even the most middling of the '90s one-hit wonder bands. Everyone had a million dollar recording budget. Everyone built their own studio in a barn near Woodstock. Everyone brought out premium sound equipment to record ambient noise at Joshua Tree. Everyone shipped double-platinum.
My high school garage band wasn't really a garage band because we rehearsed in a kind of converted living room at my friend Vince's parents' house. We recorded by hanging a cheap microphone from the ceiling. And we loved every minute of it. We absolutely did. But we understood that this was pretty much as far as we would go. If we had a major label record deal, and top-notch production, and world-class studio musicians, well then we could dream about something bigger. I thought we wrote some really good songs. But I don't know if we ever thought we were Artists. That implied something beyond us.
It was like that with all artistic formats. When I read novels, I imagined the stories of their creation. When I read The Corrections, I saw Franzen holed up in some secluded but well-stocked cabin, safe from the pressures and responsibilities of the world, living comfortably off a hefty advance, writing letters to David Foster Wallace about the meaning of literature and devoting every waking thought to his craft. (Unlike the last paragraph about The Beatles, I don't know if any of these details are true. I could be making up every word in this paragraph. The point is that this is how I thought great novels were created.) Journalism was no different. Hunter S. Thompson's expense reports must have been massive. Cigarette boats to Cuba, Vincent Black Shadows down Highway 1, and enough rum to drown everything. Then retreat to Woody Creek to shoot guns sort it all out.
In college, and briefly in grad school, I wrote short stories while working part time at a bookstore, then a chain Italian restaurant. I took a bunch of other classes, of which I remember shockingly little. (Seriously, I was a philosophy minor. I took an entire class on Wittgenstein. I have no idea what that guy was about.) I struggled to pay rent. I sat in traffic. I bought groceries. I watched too much TV. I battled hangovers. I did many, many things that were not writing, often because I had to, but sometimes because I was lazy. My short stories were not very good. I told myself that, if I ever got a chance to focus all my energies on writing, if all this real-world nonsense ever just melted away, my short stories would get better. I knew this would never happen.
When I was very young, I wanted to be a garbage man. This is absolutely true. I think a lot of this is based on the children's book Junk Day on Juniper Street, but looking back it seems like my Mom had a whole library of books about happy garbage men who found awesome stuff in the trash, fixed it up, and possibly solved crimes or something. The point is that, from a very young age, I believe that garbage man was absolutely the coolest profession in the world. They were the stars of the show, heroes in their community, possessed of a kind of self-satisfaction I could tell was rare in the adult world. This is the only time in my life that I ever really had an answer for the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
When people ask me now what I wanted to be when I grew up, I jokingly tell them that I wanted to play third base for the Minnesota Twins. This is only half-true ... I would gladly have played either corner infield position, but I was better with the glove than the bat, and so I profiled better at third. The more serious truth behind that joke is that I never really had any career ambitions. I became an English major because I liked to read, and I liked to write, and I liked to talk about books, and I was pretty good at all of them. I assumed the job stuff would sort itself out eventually.
To be honest, I never really thought I would go to law school. As a college senior, stocking shelves at a Barnes & Noble in Central Minnesota, I remember flipping through a book of practice LSAT exams before filing it with the others. The questions didn't look all that difficult. I was already wrestling with my future. I had been accepted to the MFA Creative Writing program at San Jose State University. I knew I wanted to move to California, but I wondered about the utility of a second liberal arts degree. I had been working at the bookstore for two years. Plenty of people were asking about The South Beach Diet and The Purpose-Driven Life. Only a handful asked about heroes of mine like Jonathan Lethem or Michael Chabon, and those weren't obscure cult favorites, they were some of the biggest names in fiction. I knew the book-buying public wasn't exactly clamoring for another pop-culture-saturated novel from some middle-class white kid.
So I got mad at the system. Why did we value the wrong things? Why were the artists starving while hotshot bankers and lawyers raked in money for nothing? What right did they have to exploit the system?
That last question stuck with me. Bankers, I assumed, knew things about business, and finance, things I did not know. Lawyers, though ... they were good with words. I was good with words. What right did they have to exploit the system? Well, they had the same right that I did. They did it because they could. I had a suspicion that I could, too.
This would have been late 2003, early 2004. I didn't find myself enrolled in law school until fall 2006. The rationalization took time, but the logic involved was incredibly easy. I could process information, and I could write. There are a number of professions where that skill set would prove useful. In terms of total financial compensation, though ... it was obvious that society valued the law over all others. I didn't choose to become an attorney. America chose it for me.
I remember the first time I told anyone I was considering going to law school. I told Brian, my boss at Barnes & Noble. Brian was an incredibly down-to-earth guy. He loved books, but he was no elitist academic snob. He was also one of the friendliest people I have ever known. So, when I say "Brian called me a sellout to my face" ... I don't really mean that. He gave me some kind of spin on the "Come on, you're better than that" speech. He knew I had aspirations to literature, and it bummed him out to hear that I was considering abandoning them. It was the first time I understood that there would be an element of giving up in pursuing a Real Job.
My day job at the time consisted largely of handing out copies of The Da Vinci Code. And yet still it was possible to sell out.
I went to law school. Looking back, I don't think I regret it. Choosing one path closes off all others. I get that. The doubts and second-thoughts I have about my current profession seem entirely manageable compared with the worst-case (or even some of the pretty-good-case) scenarios implicit in becoming a writer. I make good money. I have a chance to do cool things. I don't worry about the future. And besides, I was never going to be an Artist anyway. Those people were different.
This section of the essay made a lot more sense before Bill Simmons started Grantland, but let's try it anyway.
My job requires me to sit in front of a computer for hundreds of hours every month. So did law school. So does my obsession with music. And sports. Really, pretty much everything leads to sitting in front of the computer. And I love essays. And I love distractions. So I've found an impossible number of writers to follow. Some of them (Simmons, Chuck Klosterman, Matt Taibbi, John Jeremiah Sullivan) have book deals and prominent columns in successful magazines. Others, though ... just write. They do it even though they have other jobs. (Rany Jazayerli writes about everything from the Royals to Syria, and the guy's a dermatologist). They do it even when they lose their jobs. (My spiritual adviser, Fred Clark at Slacktivist, was recently laid off from his newspaper gig.) Most just write to write (like the incomparable Molly Lambert, ripping off impossibly profound riffs on pop culture from a website she started with a friend).
And now Simmons has hired Rany, and Molly, and Katie Baker, and Tess Lynch, and countless other incredible writers previously toiling in semi-obscurity, and I would hope that Grantland's ESPN backing means that all of them are working on some kind of professional and financial security. When I found them, though, they certainly weren't the celebrity Artists of my childhood.
There are a million reasons why I didn't write "Let It Be," and lack of talent is only one of them. I had none of the resources that Sir Paul had. If we switched places, who knows what would have happened?
These are the lies you can tell yourself when your heroes are international icons.
When your heroes self-publish a web magazine ... well, what's stopping you?
Which brings us back to Jason Parks. Through the podcast, I've learned a few things about the day to day life of Mr. Parks. I don't claim to know him, by any stretch, but I think it's fair to say I know more about him than any of the other people I've mentioned in this essay. And it turns out his life isn't perfect. It turns out the man deals with some issues, which seems completely unfair to me. One of the little joys of my week is having a fresh Up and In podcast loaded on my iPhone. By the logic of how I was taught to understand art and celebrity, this means Parks (and equally excellent co-host Kevin Goldstein, who, if he started a band, could probably get a several-thousand-word essay written about himself as well) should be rich and famous by now, entertaining adoring women on his yacht. Somehow, though, he's just a guy who lives in Brooklyn.
Here's the part that troubles me. If you sketched out the essentials of my job (third-year associate at major law firm X, salary is Y, potential for advancement is Z) and the essentials of Parks' job (freelance scout, freelance blogger, website contributor, unsigned musician), and you asked a number of people who was more successful ... I think a decent chunk of them would choose me. Which is insane. If I'm more successful, how come I haven't brought hours of happiness to Jason Parks' life? If I'm more successful, how much of that is due to my own selfishness? Because only one of us has contributed anything to society.
I would absolutely trade jobs with Jason Parks, just like I would have traded jobs with Paul McCartney, or Hunter S. Thompson. That's obvious. It's equally obvious that McCartney and Thompson never would have taken me up on that offer. Parks, though ...
He's a smart guy. He knows where the money is. He could have made the same decision I did, traded in his liberal arts degree for a high-paying desk job. Maybe, when times are tough, he thinks about a parallel life with a 401(k) and comprehensive health insurance. Maybe he doesn't. I hope he doesn't. It fits this narrative better if he doesn't. Maybe Baseball Prospectus has an awesome insurance plan. I don't know. But what does it mean when it is conceivable that one of your heroes might wish he could trade places with you? What does it mean when society, as a whole, might agree with his decision?
In the end, what is the difference between me and Jason Parks? Why didn't I write "Steady Til Stuck"? Why don't I write bizarro short fiction about Tom Verducci? One answer, of course, might be "TALENT." That's a totally fair point. Of all the things Parks does, I doubt I do any of them as well. That's not really what I'm getting at here. I'm talking about his actual creative output: podcast with a friend, website he runs himself, freelance contributions to other websites, self-produced recordings of his own band. This isn't The Beatles. This isn't Franzen. Or Thompson. What advantages could I claim that Parks has over me? The only difference between Parks and me is that he chose to do this, he chose to stick with it in the face of obstacles, chose to stick with it even though he probably knows that, even if everything breaks perfectly for him, he will never be rich and famous. He chose to do this ... and I chose not to.
That's a tough thing to think about.