Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Recognizing Talent And Lack Of It

Lots of talent goes unrecognized. After Tom Brady played what was probably his last game as a Patriot last Saturday, most believe he is (was?) the best quarterback ever, but few saw that talent early in his college career. Coach Belichick saw it though, and it has paid off handsomely for football fans all over New England. It’s been quite a run for Patriots, but it couldn’t last forever.

Maine's Dave Mallett
Often I’ve observed musicians playing locally who are very talented, but had to continue struggling with small gigs here and there while working other jobs to support themselves. I’d see others on television with great notoriety but lacking the talent locals demonstrated. How did they gain widespread fame when the locals were unknown beyond a fifty-mile radius? Marketing? I suppose it’s all good so long as the performers and those listening are enjoying themselves. 
Museum of Fine Art Boston
There are those to whom talent is ascribed but who seem totally lacking in it. Wandering through art museums, for example, one must question the judgement of curators who display absurd objects purported to be “art.” As a boy, my mother would take my siblings and me into Boston to the Forsyth Dental Clinic where fillings and braces were free. Some days I’d have hours to kill and I’d spend it at the Museum of Fine Arts just across the Fens. Most of what I saw was amazing work but in other stuff I could discern no artistic merit. At only eight or ten years old, I knew it was junk.

Alleged Art at MFA Boston
It’s been a half century, but I see about the same proportion of art and junk hanging at the Portland Museum of Art today. A fine museum, it has collections by truly great artists including Winslow Homer, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and many others. And then there’s alleged art by others whose names I cannot recall because I am profoundly unimpressed when viewing their stuff. I felt they were trying to con me. As a kid I trusted my instincts — never thinking, as some others did, that there must be something there I just wasn’t bright enough to see.

Are art “experts” only pretending when they claim to see talent others cannot? Are they like the adults who pretended to see beautiful clothes on the emperor? In that iconic children’s story, the tailor who created the emperor’s “clothes” knew he was a con artist, but the emperor and his subjects on the street who watched him process in the nude didn’t trust their instincts. When they pretended to see beauty, it was out of fear of being seen as stupid because they couldn’t see what they believed everyone else could.

And then there are poets. No doubt there are many talented ones out there, but I’m not sure they comprise a majority. All through elementary school, high school, and college I was encouraged to “appreciate” many different poets. Some I actually did appreciate, but not many. As an undergraduate I had a leftist professor of English who declared Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” the best poem of the age. Drifting leftward myself in those days, I tried hard to see the genius he insisted was there, but never could.

My parents sent me to a Catholic prep school in Lowell, Massachusetts when Lowell native and writer Jack Kerouac was at the height of his fame. Several times I tried to read his books, but just couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. I quit reading after about forty pages into three or four of them. Seeing a drunken Kerouac in 1968 on William F. Buckley’s PBS program “Firing Line,” didn’t impress me either. That Allen Ginsberg and he were close friends only made it worse.

Ginsberg and Kerouac
Very recently, however, I got another insight into Kerouac from an unlikely source. On the 50th anniversary of his death, The American Spectator did a tribute to him. A quote: “On the Road was really an autobiographical expression of Kerouac’s longing and searching for something — that something was God. Historian Douglas Brinkley, the editor of Kerouac’s diary, reported that nearly every page carried a prayer, an appeal to Christ for mercy, or a sketched crucifix. ‘Kerouac was trying to make everything holy,’ said Brinkley.

In its obituary, the New York Times quoted Kerouac from one of his last interviews in which he declared: “I’m not a Beatnik, I’m a Catholic.” Uncomfortable with his literary fame and its cooption by sixties leftists, his drinking got worse. It killed him in 1969 at 47. Lately I’m seeing Kerouac as a conflicted soul who, if he had been able to reconcile his tortured life with his understanding of God and achieve sobriety, might have displayed a more authentic genius than the world had hitherto witnessed.


Kafir said...

I’m fortunate to be out of the cold Maine winters for several months in Fort Lauderdale. Right across the street there are a number of bars/restaurants which have live music daily such as Blue Jean Blues, Fishtales, Nick’s, etc. it’s kind of a mini Nashville scene.

The majority of the musicians are older who have played in clubs up north. They are extremely talented, real musicians. One, Anthony Corrado, plays 12 instruments and has a voice like Frank Sinatra. He’s also a triathlete who was struck by a car while on his bicycle.

Jimmy Cavallo would play a full 3 hour set with his quartet with only one short break. He just died recently at the age of 92.

There are others, Valerie Tyson, Uptown Express, the Fabulons, Suzi and Steve Cruz, who all do the circuit. Then, there are the tribute bands who play at the block parties. All very talented but never made it “big”. Makes me wonder why, too.

As an English major in the early 70’s, I gave up pretending poetry mattered. I appreciated art in all its various forms but not bananas duct taped to a wall.

Tom McLaughlin said...

In a private email, I received the following comment from Joanne Kanarkiewicz. I post it here with her permission:

"I always read articles that I come across that mention Jack Kerouac. It's always interesting and/or amusing to see how people analyze and dissect his persona, writing and anything else they can find. My father grew up with Jack, and was his friend for many years. Their friendship was strained when Jack began his descent into alcoholism and drugs. I remember all the people coming to our house and interviewing my father. Book after book, my father was quoted. And in Jack's stories, he was known as Lousy. It was quite funny since whenever my father was asked about how he felt, his response was always "Lousy."

Jack used to call our house extremely drunk and my mother would hang up. I think it made my father sad to see his friend in such condition. He never read Jack's writing and when I did, I saw talent, passion and dysfunction. Imagine what he might have written had he been sober. I can't say that I understood any of it. It was French Canadian Catholic Lowell - and at the time I was born, the neighborhoods had disappeared. But you could understand the culture only if you grew up there.

So, talented? Definitely. But his talent was distorted, cheapened and twisted by his addictions. He lost sight of the religion he chased. He showcased a "beatnik" culture that hadn't been seen. It was new - and it wasn't.

My father went to his grave never saying a bad word about his friend. He didn't attend his funeral, although I know he was saddened by Jack's death. More so, I think he was saddened by the loss of their friendship and what might have been."