Slow Players #4: "Making Art to Make Music to Make Art To" (Parfitt)


It’s cold now in Los Angeles. Those of you who are elsewhere may scoff—or, more likely, be gazing out the window at a climate anomaly of your own—but those of us who are here recognize that winter has come a little early. Which I suppose is a metaphor (today’s doom scroll suggests that 2020 may just be gearing up one—hopefully only one—last shake), but it’s also a fact: the afternoon sunlight is sharp, there’s a cashmere watch cap covering my ears, the amber liquors have swapped back into rotation. Last night I sat up watching The Conformist, a film I hadn’t seen since high school, and its wintry European landscapes, its frightening assassination scene, felt fitting even outside the advancing fears of fascism.

Perhaps I’ll write about that soon, but what’s on my mind today is rather something Brian Eno said about The Velvet Underground, one of those statements that’s been repeated (and distorted) so many times it’s lost most of its penetration and sunk back to the level of rock criticism cliche: “The first Velvet Underground record only sold thirty thousand copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” The point, at least to me, isn’t that the Velvets were (no shit) “influential,” but rather . . .

Why form a band in the first place? Why write a book? If you’re like me, you probably do so in the vainglorious hope that it’ll sell more than thirty thousand copies (a number which would today represent a towering success, and land you on more than a few best-seller lists), but if you’re also like me you probably . . . don’t care, or you’d simply like to sell enough copies that the numbers don’t prevent you from publishing your next one. (To my editor, who’s likely reading this: I care! I care, and I promise to do my utmost to promote. But between me and my conscience—the only company I have when I sit down to write—at least, I honestly don’t care in the slightest.) This seems healthy to me, or at least not uncommon. When Cormac McCarthy appeared, reluctantly, on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2007, she seemed practically affronted when he told her essentially the same thing. Being a writer, like being in a band— or at least, like being in one that doesn’t suck—seems to have a different end entirely, namely, the extension and propagation of form. You don’t form a band (write a book) to win prizes. You do it so the medium will survive.

My friend Philip lives in France. Once upon a time, back in the late eighties, he had a band—one of the vaunted thirty thousand (“We were practically a Velvet Underground cover band,” he told me recently, “when we started”)—called The Perfect Disaster. If you’re like most people, or most Americans at least, you’ve never heard of them. If you were in the UK at that time maybe you caught them, sharing a bill with Spacemen 3 (another one of the thirty thousand, with a patrilineage of their own now practically as extensive) or Folk Devils or any number of other even-more-forgotten bands of the era. I wasn’t, and so never did, but for reasons unremembered bought an import copy of the band’s Asylum Road in a record store in Massachusetts, dragged it home and fell in love with it. Maybe I liked the cover or, more probably, simply had a refined nose for bands that sounded like the Velvet Underground, that combined sleaze and detachment and prettiness and noise, all things that were important to me back in the late 1980s. In this case more prettiness than sleaze, though they could (and did) dial up the amps enough to make a real racket. I liked this song (for which there was no actual video, so feel free to close your eyes if you don’t feel like staring at the album cover for a couple minutes), with its low-droning cellos and otherworldly, almost doo-wop feeling, its spectral, “Pale Blue Eyes”-like quality that takes it somewhere greater than the sum of its minimalist parts:

It wasn’t a “hit” or anything, and it feels kinda churlish to argue that it should have been (it’s not that kind of song), but it’s definitely one that I’ve hung onto over the years. When I finally requisitioned a turntable a few years ago, after a long period without, it was the first thing I played on it, and it sounded just as great to me as it did thirty-ish years ago, as did the band’s subsequent record, Up, which was—I reckon—just slightly more realized as a whole (and which at least did earn enough record company support to prompt a video, albeit one that largely serves to recall what a strange promotional apparatus the “music video” was in its heyday, particularly for bands that seemed disinclined to make use of it). So far, the story of many bands, and many artists: you make a good record (book, film) and someone offers you a little more support to make another good, indeed maybe even better, record (book, film). Then—

Well, lots of things can happen. You can make another piece of art, or a few more, and eventually you either “break through,” whatever that means exactly, or you fold your hand eventually and go on to do something else. (Or, of course, you settle into the ordinary life of a working artist: some highs, some lows, perhaps the sustained support of a dedicated audience. That audience can be large or small, but if you get to that point you have, in some sense, already broken through.) In the Perfect Disaster’s case, there were some personnel changes (bassist Josephine Wiggs departed to co-found the Breeders), there was one more record—not quite as good—and they broke up, as bands tend to.

Jump forward a few decades. I made a mixcloud for a friend in France and included “TV (Girl on Fire)” simply because the invitation was to assemble an hour’s worth of my favorite songs, which I did with an ear toward choosing at least some that wouldn’t be piled up on everyone’s Spotify playlists already. Phil must have heard it (I think? I never asked) for he and I began trading messages on Facebook and, after I asked him “So, er, what have you been up to the past few decades?”, I found myself listening to rough mixes of songs he was winnowing for an album.

There’s a story here, and it’s one I’m omitting: the story of a person’s life, whatever transpired in the thirty years between the final Perfect Disaster record and the second (it turns out) Philip Parfitt solo album. Scouring the internet I found a few interviews in which Phil talked about living in a mill town in France, about the discouragement that might have followed the dissolution of his short-lived nineties band Oedipussy, about influences on his prior record (which slipped out quietly in 2014) . . . mostly about writing, and about how (despite having released very little over the last few decades), he’d actually been prolific in his recording. He just hadn’t felt inclined to deal with the rigamarole of releasing what he has. All of this is legible in the interviews, and so constitutes the “story,” but . . . not really. Asked to account for three decades of life, any of us might come up with a bit more than that.

But there’s a reason I’m telling you this, and it’s not just to prop up the work of an email pal or to encourage you to listen to something (which I will do in a moment). These days, I seem to encounter a lot of frustrated creative people—far more than usual. I know novelists (excellent ones) struggling to sell place their work or find an agent; gifted filmmakers (as has always been the case but now even more than usual) struggling to get movies or TV shows off the ground or, just as often, to draw eyeballs to shows that are already made, on the air or floating around beyond the grasp of your Netflix algorithm, underseen. This is the bonus problem of the contemporary artist—and the contemporary person—which reverts over and again to the breakdown of attention. You’re not paying enough of it, any more than I am, because we’re endlessly distracted by the crisis to which we’re never quite able to pay enough attention either.

That’s definitely not an indictment. I started this newsletter as a way of directing my own attention—and that of anyone who cares to follow—to things that are not of a piece with that crisis: books and films and music that’s twenty years old, or twenty minutes old but rattling around somehow outside the cage of the discourse. It’s where I prefer to be, hence ‘Slow Players,’ a name that’s intended to evoke a few different things but really just settles on the idea that many things that might actually reward our attention (instead of merely provoking it) aren’t being kicked around ad infinitum on Twitter. I don’t know who’s listening to Phil’s new record, but I know who isn’t: most people. And I know who should: many more people than ever will, most likely. (Even if he does sell thirty thousand copies of it—or a hundred, whatever the magic number is for an independent recording artist in 2020—it’ll be far, far less than he deserves.) On the other hand, it’s a record that feels like a real document: analog and private, subtle and warm. It sounds less like the Velvet Underground and more like Nick Drake. The sort of thing that could have been recorded decades ago, and will sound just as startling—if we’re still here—many decades from now. If you’re an analog sort, you might consider picking it up on vinyl, as it has a beautiful gatefold sleeve and some liner notes by (ahem) me; if you collect in digital formats, you can grab those too, and if you must, you can dial it up on the streaming platforms (though at present only a teaser track is there in America), but why not support the artist and be one of those folks who buys the record in the first place? Better three hours too soon than a minute late, as the poet said.

Philip Parfitt - Mental Home Recordings

Taking Drugs To Make Music to Take Drugs To was the endearingly tautological name of a record by a band with whom Phil occasionally shared the stage. But its circular logic applies otherwise too. Making art to make art to make art to. Or, as Toni Morrison put it otherwise, "The function of freedom is to free someone else." I'll leave it to you to determine what the wages of freedom--or its precise opposite, fame--might be.

It may be slightly longer than usual before I get around to the next one of these--I have a few new projects clamoring for my attention, of which I'll be able to say more later--so I'll leave you with a couple of spare goodies. One is Ed Ruscha’s fantastic documentation of the Sunset Strip in 1966, which is perhaps still the closest thing to an actual time machine you’re likely to find. Another is this here playlist of bands quite evidently among Brian Eno’s thirty thousand, one that’s hardly comprehensive (and can only squeeze in a song or two from the third, least-satisfying Perfect Disaster record, as the others aren’t on Spotify) but should give you a few hours of Lou Reed-ish pleasure.

The Velvet Afterground

For now—