Thursday, 13 November 2014

Ryan Adams, Curiosity and a Kazoo Solo

Last night G and I went to our first concert at Massey Hall to hear Ryan Adams.  Massey Hall feels to me strangely like a hybrid between an opera house and a high school auditorium.  In the stairwells, the concrete walls were painted white and red like a school team's colours (it occurs to me now that they are also Canada's colours).  In the highest level of the gallery, where we sat, the seats are wooden and narrow, and the seat folds up when you stand.  There's barely enough leg room for me (at a slightly smudged 5'2").  And yet there is also a sort of opulence in the way the galleries are arranged like opera boxes around the stage.  In between the opening set and the main performance, the lights came on and it felt very much like an intermission at a Victorian theatre, everyone looking around at each other, seeing and being seen.

I'm not very familiar with Ryan Adams or his music, although I really enjoyed the concert and recognized some of the songs he played.  At one point, Adams was riffing with the audience between songs and sarcastically said he was going to do whatever he wanted on his next album--a 10-minute kazoo solo, for example, because "I don't care."

This remark got me thinking about how artists (musicians, writers, painters, etc.) evolve over time, over decades-long careers, and what keeps them going.  In some cases, for example Kathryn Davis (an author and mentor of mine at Skidmore College), the impulse to experiment seems boundless.  From novel to novel, Davis' work feels less like she is reinventing herself than that she is tapping into yet another dimension of her prism-like imagination.  She somehow maintains a sense of wonder and scientific curiosity--effortlessly!  She never seems weary or cynical. In an interview about her book The Thin Place, Davis once said, "The world is a beautiful thing.  I mean, it's also horrible, but it will be sad to lose it." This is both unique to her lens (and great empathy) as an artist, and a common thread, I think, among those writers I most admire, whose work always feels energetic and exciting. It is the exact opposite of Adams' "I don't care" sentiment-- a joke, yes, but a joke I couldn't ever imagine Davis making.

I suppose there are artists for whom art becomes a cynical undertaking. Though an example escapes me at the moment, I know I have come across books that I'm pretty confident were published (if not necessarily written) cynically-- written by a famous author with name recognition and a following, they are bound to sell lots of copies even if the book is kind of crappy (the same book, without the name recognition, would never see the light of day).  Is writing still a labour of love, a mode of exploring the world, in these cases?  Or has it become an obligation, a routine, one the reader can feel?  Are readers as astute as I think they are, in knowing when a writer is phoning it in?

I am a very long way from having an evolving, decades-long career in anything, let alone art-making.  And I appreciate how difficult it can be to stay curious and empathetic as any kind of artist, considering how difficult it is to make a living, and how nepotistic and insular some of these worlds can be. But why make music, why write, why make art of any kind, if all you feel is the burden of it?

I can't help hoping that, if Adams ever does make a 10-minute track of a kazoo solo, it will be the most haunting kazoo solo the world has ever seen, full of passion none of us had ever realized a kazoo could express.


  1. Good post Sara. Equally frustrating is a performer or group with loads of talent that never achieves their full potential like Oasis because of the feuding Gallagher brothers (
    What a shame!


  2. I want to start a blog now called The Haunting Kazoo. And I am really excited about Gem City. Nice!

  3. I wonder if part of the difference between Ryan Adams and Kathryn Davis has to do with the mediums they are working in. Sometimes I feel sorry for highly successful musicians because they end up in a kind of trap. They have a rally successful album and then 20 years go by and their fans just want to hear the old favorites, not the new stuff. For writers it's not the same. If you go to see them at a reading you want to hear their newest book not the one they wrote 20 years back. I'm not saying successful writers don't sometimes "phone it in" but I think that's also more socially acceptable in the writing sphere. Writers are allowed, encouraged even, to keep producing new work for decade after decade. So Alice Munro wins the Nobel in her old age. But if Leonard Cohen goes on tour the audience just wants to hear him play Suzanne.