Transcript

73:

Blame It on Art
Transcript

Originally aired 08.22.1997

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/73

Prologue.

Ira Glass

So, Jim, say who you are and say where you are.

Jim Biederman

Well, I'm Jim Biederman, and I'm standing in the Hall of the States in the Louvre museum. It's a hall of Italian masters where many of the Italian masters, the Carvaggios and Raphaels and many of the Italian painters from the Venetian period are hung, including Leonardo da Vinci and the Mona Lisa. I'm standing right across the way from the Mona Lisa, as a matter of fact.

Ira Glass

And you're speaking to us on a cell phone from there in Paris.

Jim Biederman

From the actual museum itself.

Ira Glass

I was in Italy once, in Florence. And I went to the museum where they have Michelangelo's statue of David. He holds a slingshot in one hand. You've see pictures of this. And as I stood there, all around the statue were people talking about what restaurant they were going to go to later, when they were going to meet their friends. You know, you stand there and you just think, how good would this statue have to be to actually get their undivided attention? What has an artist got to do?

And this is not just Michelangelo's problem. We sent out an actual foreign correspondent, Jim Biederman, to the Louvre, and he discovered that Leonardo da Vinci is also having trouble touching people's hearts in the museum setting.

Jim Biederman

Well, one of the great debates that's taking place here around the Mona Lisa is exactly how expensive it is and why it's valued at so much. The people are talking about what it is exactly that makes this painting so special. And I heard one woman say, well, I hear it's her smile. Another woman said, no, no, no. It's her eyes. And she says, her eyes follow you anywhere in the room. And then she says to her friend, go over there in the corner and see if she's looking at you. And she stomps across the room. Is she looking at you over there? Can you see her looking at you over there?

Ira Glass

So, Jim, do people stand next to the Mona Lisa and talk about things that have nothing to do with the painting at all?

Jim Biederman

Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And also you get a lot of people sort of pressed to get other places. "I'm tired, Dad. You said you were going to take us somewhere else." And "Oh, we've seen this. Let's go." And yeah, there's a lot of that.

Ira Glass

It actually makes you feel bad for artists, you know? A group most of us feel no sympathy for whatsoever. I mean, imagine an artist's life. It takes years to develop any skills. It's intensely difficult to learn. It's very, very competitive. Almost nobody makes any money doing it. There are jealousies and unfair treatment. And then, if somehow, somehow, your work is recognized and you end up in a museum, perhaps, incredibly, you end up in a world-class museum like the Louvre, this is how you're treated, even here.

Jim Biederman

One woman stood in front. And she said, I saw in a film once that if you go really close to the painting, she doesn't look that good at all.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

What do people want out of art? What are they looking for anyway? Imagine da Vinci's horror if he heard the banality of the following exchange between Jim and I?

Ira Glass

Jim, is it possible for you to walk over to the Mona Lisa right now?

Jim Biederman

I'm right next to it right now.

Ira Glass

You are?

Jim Biederman

I'm standing right at the rail. There's bulletproof glass in front and a rail that stands out about five feet here that keeps people away. It's quite a lovely painting. And it's true. Her eyes do follow you everywhere.

Ira Glass

They do?

Jim Biederman

Yes, I'm off to the side right now, but if I go across-- and I'll just do this for you, Ira, because I know that this is real radio here. So I'm going to go over to the other side here. And I'm in the center now, and she's looking straight at me. She's got that enigmatic smile. She looks like she might be smirking a bit at these tourists. I could be wrong. And now I'm over on the left side, and she's still staring at me over here.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our program, people who thought that they actually knew better about art, better than me, better than Jim. And they actually became artists. And what happened to them. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today, Blame It on Art. Act One, the cutthroat world of balloon animal artists. No kidding, balloon animal artists.

Act Two, writer David Sedaris recounts his own shameful career as a performance artist and how his toenail clippings ended up in a museum.

Act Three, Reverb, how a hard core jazz snob learned to love what some would consider the worst music in the world, the music his father played.

Act Four, Grace Note, a story from New York locksmith Joel Kostman. Stay with us.

Act One. Life In A Bubble.

Ira Glass

Act One, Life in a Bubble. In the world of the artist, successes and failures are all carefully measured, people hold grudges, people are accused of selling out. You find these stories everywhere, the independent rock scene in Chicago or Seattle, the galleries in SoHo, the theater scene pretty much anywhere that theater is made anywhere on this planet. But you might not expect to find these kinds of stories at the Toy Fair. The Toy Fair is the big trade show for the toy world. Thousands of manufacturers and buyers descend on New York City for the event every year. Our contributing editor Paul Tough went with Aaron Hsu-Flanders, a toy entrepreneur.

Paul Tough

Aaron and I are walking through the entrance hall of the Jacob Javits Center, just hanging out, talking when suddenly we see Amazing [? Shoney. ?] He's got the whole outfit on, painted face, polka-dotted shirt, baggy pants, really, really big shoes. He's a clown all right. And he's doing what clowns do. He's making balloon animals.

Amazing Shoney

You have a magical day now.

Paul Tough

Shoney hands Aaron a lopsided pink inflated giraffe. He's just made a balloon animal for one of the acknowledged masters of the art, Aaron Hsu-Flanders, author of Balloon Animals, More Balloon Animals, Balloon Hats and Accessories, and Balloon Cartoons and Other Favorites. It's a weird moment. It's as if Michael Jordan stopped by a schoolyard and played a little one-on-one with an unsuspecting teenager. Aaron doesn't let on who he is. And the two of them just chat for a few minutes about some of the current issues in balloon sculpting.

Amazing Shoney

I haven't been able to make a good Barney. Can you make Barney? I make him a tyrannosaurus rex that's purple. It doesn't quite look like it. But it's enough to pass.

Paul Tough

We take our giraffe and walk away. Aaron tells me what he thinks.

Aaron Hsu

I wasn't blown away. He made a sort of generic-looking combination dog giraffe kind of thing that you couldn't-- it was more the power of suggestion. He was sort of a follower of the theory that all balloon animals are essentially dogs with a little variation here and there. Lacked a little of the finesse that I admit I have to sort of insist upon in order to be impressed with someone.

Paul Tough

Aaron's been making animals out of balloons for more than 20 years. And if anyone in the world of balloon animals is an artist, Aaron is. He invented quite a few designs. It was Aaron, for instance, who made the first balloon camel ever. Amazing [? Shoney ?] may not have recognized him. But here at Toy Fair, especially where balloon people gather, he's constantly being noticed.

Man

Aaron, I've seen you on television.

Aaron Hsu

Have you?

Man

Yeah.

Aaron Hsu

What show?

Man

QVC.

Aaron Hsu

Just recently.

Man

Yeah. $13.18.

Aaron Hsu

The memory. You got it.

Paul Tough

It's not a total surprise that this guy recognized Aaron. He's in the balloon animal business too. The product that Aaron, sells that he's here at Toy Fair to market, is an instruction book on how to make balloon animals packaged together with 40 balloons and an inflating pump. And the package that this guy sells is suspiciously similar. We walk away from the booth, and Aaron tells me he's used to this sort of thing. There have been eight knockoffs of his product before this one.

Aaron Hsu

Clearly he came out with quite a few direct yes knockoff products. His whole line virtually is a knockoff product. I think he felt like he had to pal up to me a little bit. I am, in a somewhat obscure field, perhaps the acknowledged master at this point.

Paul Tough

He's got no boss, no set hours. He makes little kids happy. It seems like a dream job, but it's not his dream. His dream is to be an artist, a real artist. What he really wants to be doing is this.

[GUITAR MUSIC PLAYING]

Aaron Hsu

I mean, for a long time I did have a love-hate relationship with balloons. And it took me a while to get over that. There is a sort of darker side. This isn't something that I always thought I would do my whole life. It's not the mark that I had ever intended for my whole life to make on the world. And I am a musician, and I actually have always hoped and continue to hope to make a musical mark in some way on the world also. I consider balloons more a craft and music more an art. And I've always considered myself first and foremost a musician.

[GUITAR MUSIC PLAYING]

Paul Tough

This is from a CD called The Blue Jester that Aaron and his friend David recorded a few years ago. Aaron produced it himself, and he distributes it out of his home. When Aaron was in his twenties his life revolved around music. And balloons were just something he did for money, making animals at parties to help pay the rent. Most of his friends were in the same boat, concentrating on their art or their music and working odd jobs for money. It was one of those tightly knit artistic communities where everyone's more or less at the same level of success, everyone has the same values, everyone's supporting one another. And then things changed. In 1989, when he was 29, Aaron published his first book, an 80-page paperback with black and white photos that explained how to make 20 of the most common balloon animals-- giraffes, poodles, dachshunds, elephants. It did pretty well.

Aaron Hsu

When the moniker best-seller was added to my book, suddenly I had some serious issues of jealousy and envy from almost all of my particularly male friends at that point in my life. I noticed that questions of success and failure and contentment with their own lives were brought to the fore, that this sort of forced the question. Like, oh, Aaron had a best-seller. So that still is an issue.

Paul Tough

Did balloons actually sort of come between you and certain friends permanently?

Aaron Hsu

Yeah, that's actually sad. I had to end very long-term, meaningful friendships for me.

Paul Tough

As the business got more successful, Aaron's friends, especially his male friends, became more and more critical. He bought a house. He bought a car. He got married. He had kids. All paid for by balloon animals. In his eyes, he was still part of that same creative community. In their eyes, he'd gone corporate.

Aaron Hsu

I bemoan the loss of my male friends. That's the irony that my wife and I share all the time is that I'm a person who-- very friendly, amiable person who has thousands of acquaintances, but I have virtually no friends, really close friends.

Paul Tough

It's an old story, a group of struggling artists. One of them makes it big. The rest feel threatened and bitter. The thing that's incredible, though, about Aaron's story, is that true, he's on top, but he's on top of the world of balloon animals. He takes out a couple of long, thin balloons, the tools of his trade, and starts to demonstrate his craft.

[BALLOONS SQUEAKING]

Aaron Hsu

That's it.

Paul Tough

Very nice.

A few squeaks later. Hard to convey, I think, over the radio, but what was just created during that little squeaky period was a teddy bear.

It says something about human nature that even in this world of teddy bears and giraffes, success is so threatening that becoming king of the balloon animals can destroy a community, turn lifelong friends against one another.

Aaron Hsu

One of my closest friends just recently, after all these years, although there had been a significant period of estrangement, I had to-- we virtually are not in touch at all anymore.

Paul Tough

Aaron tells me about this one friend of his, a friend since childhood, who composes contemporary classical music. Not too many people in that world make it big. And his friend apparently wasn't one of the lucky few. He ended up in a job he hated, teaching music at a small New England college. Not enough time to compose. Not enough respect from the New York musical world. As their fortunes went in opposite directions, things between Aaron and his friend became tense.

Aaron Hsu

But it just turned into-- it was amazing, actually. He very much personalized his bitterness and attacks on what he perceived as the commercial world. But he focused it through the tiny lens of me and the world of commerce but included attacks on the frivolousness of the toy world with lines like, glad to see such creative minds are being dedicated to the world of commerce. It's not like I started manufacturing guns or weaponry or pesticides. He very much gave me the impression that he felt that I was no different than any other businessman who sells [BLEEP] to whatever.

Paul Tough

Aaron says that he's tired of defending himself from that sort of attack. But the fact is, those are the very questions he asks himself when he's alone. Is he an artist, or is he a salesman?

These days he finds himself hanging out less and less with creative people and more and more with store owners and distributors and latex manufacturers. There are some people he meets in the toy world that he likes, people he feels a real connection with, but he says it doesn't happen all that often.

Aaron Hsu

There is a certain part of me that gets really alienated when I walk around here. I hate to say this, but I look around, and it just doesn't seem like there's anyone that I really care too much about.

Paul Tough

What's happened to Aaron is what happens to a lot of creative people who find some measure of success. Without meaning to, he has become a businessman. He's really good at it. But he says sometimes he loses track of how he ended up here.

[MUSIC - "TEARS OF A CLOWN" BY THE ENGLISH BEAT]

Act Two. Still Life.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Still Life. After high school, writer David Sedaris attended an unusual number of colleges for very brief periods of time, hoping somehow that one of them would turn him into an artist, even though he had no skill at all at painting, drawing, sculpting, printmaking, or any of the known visual media. For instance, he enrolled in the art program at a school that was mainly known for its animal husbandry program, where he fell in with an arty crowd of filmmakers, lazy filmmakers.

David Sedaris

In their company, I attended grainy black and white movies in which ponderous, turtlenecked men walked the stony beaches, cursing the gulls for their ability to fly. Art was based upon despair, and the important thing was to make yourself and those around you as miserable as possible. Maybe I couldn't paint or sculpt, but I could work a mood better than anyone I knew. Unfortunately, the school had no accredited sulking program. And I dropped out more despondent than ever.

Ira Glass

This was recorded in front of a live audience in Seattle by public radio station KUOW. A warning to listeners before we begin, in this story David Sedaris mentions the fact that sex exists, and he talks about drug use with a level of detail and familiarity you do not usually hear from other public radio commentators like, say, Daniel Schorr.

David Sedaris

After a few months in my parents' basement, I took an apartment near the state university where I discovered both crystal methamphetamine and conceptual art. Either one of these things is dangerous enough, but the combination has the potential to destroy entire civilizations.

The moment I took my first burning snootful, I understood that this was the drug for me. Speed eliminates all doubt. Am I smart enough? Will people like me? Do I really look all right in this plastic jumpsuit? These are questions for insecure potheads. A speed enthusiast knows that everything he says or does is brilliant, the upswing being that, having eliminated the need for both eating and sleeping, you have a full 24 hours a day to spread your charm and talent.

"For god's sake," my father would say, "it's 4 o'clock in the morning. What are you calling for?" I was calling because the rest of my friends had taken to unplugging their phones after 10:00 PM. These were people I had known in high school, and it disappointed me to see how little we now had in common. These people were all stuck in the past, setting up their booths at the art fair and thinking themselves successful because they'd sold a silk screen picturing a footprint in the sand. Didn't they read any of the magazines? The new breed of artists wanted nothing to do with beauty. Here were people who made a living pitching tents or lying in a fetal position before our national monuments.

One fellow had made a name for himself by allowing a friend to shoot him in the shoulder. This was the art world I'd been dreaming of, where god-given talent was considered a hindrance. "Let me put your mother on," my father would say. "She's had a few drinks, and maybe she can understand whatever the hell it is you're talking about."

I bought my drugs from a wiry, pop-eyed short-order cook whose brittle, prematurely white hair was teased in such a way that I couldn't look at her without thinking of a dandelion. The drug had a way of turning people into either really good sex partners or very bad artists. And she seemed to know exactly which group I might fit into. She introduced me to a handful of jittery motormouths who shared my love of the word manifesto. The first meeting was tense, but I broke the ice by laying out a few lines of crystal and commenting on my host's refreshing lack of furniture. This was an understatement, as his living room contained nothing but an enormous nest made from human hair. It seemed the man drove twice a week to all the local salons and barber shops, collecting their sweepings and arranging them strand by strand, as carefully as a wren. "I've been building this nest for, oh, about six months now," he said. "Go ahead. Have a seat."

Inspired by my friends, I started on a few pieces of my own. My first project was a series of wooden vegetable crates I filled with my garbage. Seeing as I no longer ate anything, there were no rotting food scraps to worry about, just cigarette butts, aspirin tins, wads of hair, and bloody Kleenex. Because this was art, I meticulously recorded each entry using an ink I'd made from the crushed bodies of ticks and mosquitoes. 2:17 AM. Four toe nail clippings, dust from window sill, moth. I was a busy man. When two of my crates were completed, I carried them down to the art museum for consideration in the upcoming juried biennial. The next few weeks were spent basically camping out beside my mailbox waiting to hear what the state of North Carolina had to say about the artistic merits of my toenail clippings. When the news arrived that I had been accepted, I should have kept the information to myself. My friends' proposals to set fire to the grand staircase and sculpt the governor's head out of human feces had all been rejected. This confirmed their outsider status and made me suspect.

At the next group meeting, it was suggested that the museum had accepted my work only because it was decorative and easy to swallow. My friends could have gotten in if they'd compromised themselves, but unlike me, that was not their style. After the exhibit had ended, I burned my crates, storing the ashes in a Tupperware bowl I kept in the back of my closet. I told my friends that I hated every moment of the museum reception. Only then did I find myself back in the group's good graces. I had paid for my folly and as a reward was invited to take part in the nest builder's performance piece. He held a meeting where seven of us chirped and bleated what amounted to the script. I wanted to point out that I'd had a bit of acting experience in the past, but covered to the waste in human hair, it seemed best not to mention it.

One of the cast members stormed out in tears after being told she wasn't moaning properly, and the rest of us suffered a continuing plague of splinters and heat rashes. I never understood what the piece was about and never asked because I didn't want to appear stupid. My parents attended the premiere, sitting cross-legged on one of the mats spread like islands across the filthy concrete floor. The local newspaper ran a review headlined, "Local Group Pitches in, Cleans up Warehouse." This did nothing to encourage ticket buyers whose numbers dwindled to the single digits by the second night of our weeklong run. Luckily we found it easy to blame not ourselves but a public so brainwashed by television that they found it impossible to sit through a two and a half hour performance piece without complaining of boredom and leg cramps.

When the nest builder announced his plans for the next piece, the group fell apart. "Why is it always your piece?" We asked. When he offered us the opportunity to create our own parts, we became even angrier. Who was he to give assignments and set deadlines? The truth was that we lacked the ability to invent our own roles. This led to a climactic shouting match wherein we exhausted all our analogies, and started all over again from the top. "We're not your puppets or your little trained dogs willing to jump through some hoop. What, do you think we're puppets? Is that what you think? Do I look like a puppet to you? I'm not a puppet or a little dog either. I'm not going to jump through any of your hoops, puppet master, because I'm not a dog or a puppet. You can train a dog to jump through a hoop. Buy yourself a dog, why don't you? Better yet, get a puppet, because you've pulled these strings for the last time." I had hoped the group might stick together for years, but within 10 minutes, it was all over, finished, each of us pledging to perform on our own.

I spent the next few weeks running the argument over and over in my mind, picturing a small dog chasing a puppet across the floor of an abandoned warehouse. I was stuffing a pillow with my cigarette butts when the museum called inviting me to participate in their month of Sundays performance festival. Watching the performances of my former colleagues, I got the idea that once you'd assembled the requisite props, the piece would come together on its own. The inflatable shark led naturally to the puddle of heavy cream, which, if lapped from the floor with a slow, steady precision, could amount to up to 20 minutes of valuable stage time. This revelation led me to a secondhand store where I searched the aisles with the cold eye of a prospector. Standing at the checkout counter with an armload of sock monkeys, I told the cashier, "These are for a piece I'm working on. It's a performance commissioned by the art museum. I'm an artist." "So is my niece." The woman stabbed her cigarette into a bucket full of sand. "She's the one who made those monkeys."

It disturbed me to hear the word artist used so loosely. The man who sketched portraits at the mall called himself an artist, as did the woman who forged wreaths out of used Styrofoam cups. "Yes," I said, "but I'm a real artist." The woman was not offended, only puzzled. "But my niece lives over near Winston-Salem." She said it as though she were referring to a well-known art capital where the streets were lined with galleries and pastry shops. "She's a big blond-headed girl with twin babies. Maybe you know of her. Her name's Lucille, but everybody calls her Sock Lady on account of she's always making those monkeys. Pretty girl. Fat in the rear, but just as pretty and talented as she can be." I looked into this woman's face. Maybe one day I'd do a piece about stupidity, but right now I'd just pay for these sock monkeys, snort a few lines of speed, and finish constructing a bulletproof vest out of used flashlight batteries.

There was a good-sized crowd gathered at the art museum, and I stood before them, wishing they were half as high as I was. I'd been up for three days and nights and had taken so much speed that I could see the individual atoms pitching in to make up every folding chair. For the first few minutes, I thought it was my paranoia until I remembered that these people were staring at me for a reason. I was here to perform. The show wasn't over yet. It hadn't even started.

I tried reminding myself that I was in control. All I had to do was open my prop bag, and the rest of the piece would take care of itself. I'm slicing the pineapple now, I thought. Next I'll rip apart these sock monkeys and pour the stuffing into this tall rubber boot. Good. That's good. Now I'll snip off some of my hair with these garden shears, stare at my hands for a while, and then we're almost home. I moved towards the audience and was kneeling in the aisle, the shears is to my head when I heard, "I can't get him to touch the damn things at home." It was my father, speaking in a loud voice to the woman seated beside him. "I could never get him to cut his hair either. I guess the barber shop isn't artsy enough for him." The audience begin to laugh. For the first time since I'd started, they perked up and began enjoying themselves.

"Hey, sport, what do you charge for a shave?" It was him again, and once again, the crowd responded. Their laughter egged him on, and he proceeded to deliver a running commentary. Drunk with attention, he ruined my piece with his snide little comments. I was literally spitting tacks, trying my hardest to concentrate.

Immediately following the performance, a sizable crowd gathered around my father, congratulating him on his delivery and comic timing. "Including your father was an excellent idea," the curator said, handing me my check. "The piece really picked up once you relaxed and started making fun of yourself."

Not only did my father ask for a cut of the money, but he also started calling with suggestions for future pieces. "What if you were to symbolize man's inhumanity to man by heating up a skillet of plastic soldiers? I told him it was the lamest idea I'd ever heard in my life and to stop calling me with his pissy little ideas. "I'm an artist," I yelled. "I come up with the ideas. Not you, me. This isn't a party game. It's serious work, and I'd rather chew on blasting caps than listen to any more of your suggestions." There was a brief pause before he said, "The bit with the blasting caps just might work. Let me think about it and get back to you."

My performing career effectively ended the day my drug dealer moved to Florida to enter a treatment center. "How can you do this to me?" I asked her. "I have a piece to finish, damn it. I'm an artist, and I need to know where my drugs are coming from." I cashed in a savings bond left to me by my grandmother and used the money to buy what I hoped would be enough speed to last me through the month. It was gone in 10 days, and with it went my ability to do anything but roll on the floor and cry.

Speed's breathtaking high is followed by a crushing, suicidal low. Thinking I surely must've dropped a grain or two, I vacuumed the entire apartment with a straw up my nose, sucking up dead skin cells, Comet residue, and pulverized cat litter. Anything that traveled on the bottom of a shoe went up my nose.

After a week, I left my bed to perform at the college, deciding at the last minute to skip both the Twister game and the march of the chocolate bunnies. I just heated up a skillet of plastic soldiers, poured a milkshake over my head, and called it a night. Thank you.

Ira Glass

David Sedaris recorded in Seattle. He's the author of many books, including most recently, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

[MUSIC - "THE COLLECTOR (AND THE ART MOB)" BY TERRY ALLEN]

Coming up, views of artists in the art world that I swear are not quite so bleak. Also, what to think about the odd music Dad used to play and more. That's in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. Reverb.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and reporters and performers to tackle that theme. Today's program, Blame It on Art, stories about the difficulties and pettiness in artists' lives. We have arrived at Act Three of our program, Reverb.

Ellery Eskelin never met his father, never even talked to him, but he always heard that he was a genius all during his childhood, and especially after he started playing sax when he was 10 years old, he heard stories about his dad. He said he heard that his dad could play any instrument he picked up, that he wrote music fast, like it was nothing, that he could never understand why other musicians got frustrated when he handed out brand-new arrangements right before a gig. He could always play it right off the page. Why couldn't they? Finally Ellery got to hear his father's music for the first time. What's happened since is a story about what it means to be a nobody artist and what it means to be called a genius. This American Life producer Nancy Updike tells the story.

Nancy Updike

When Ellery first heard his father's music, it was 1976, two years after his dad was killed. His father, Rodd Keith, fell, or jumped, from an overpass onto a California highway at 5:00 in the morning. Ellery was 17 when he first heard the tape, a talented and earnest jazz saxophone player living with his mother, who was also a musician.

Ellery Eskelin

I think we were just sitting in the living room of my mother's house in Baltimore. And, you know, we pop this cassette in.

Nancy Updike

Now, perhaps not surprisingly, when Ellery first heard this recording, he was really disappointed. He hadn't known what to expect when his grandparents sent the tape. But after all the buildup, he just couldn't believe that this was going to be it from his father, the genius, one crappy tape he couldn't stand listening to. And that was the last of his father's music he heard for the next 15 years.

Ellery Eskelin

Let's play-- I'll just play this, and we'll talk about it. This is called "Hippy Happy Land."

[MUSIC - "HIPPY HAPPY LAND" BY RODD KEITH]

Nancy Updike

Is this your dad singing?

Ellery Eskelin

Yeah.

Nancy Updike

This is a song poem. Song poems are songs built around lyrics that people send in to companies that advertise in the back of some magazines. You're supposed to send in your lyrics, and then they'll write a song for you, record it, and send it out to record companies so you can break into the biz. Needles to say, the song poem industry is about half a promise short of a swindle and not a form that has launched any musicians you or I could name, except, interestingly enough, Hootie of Hootie & the Blowfish. Just kidding.

So it's 15 years since Ellery's first heard that tape of his dad, and he's thumbing through this music catalog. And he sees a CD compilation of song poems, including ones by Rodd Keith, his father. He was stunned. He immediately got the CD and started finding out everything he could about other song poems his dad wrote. It turns out he wrote hundreds and hundreds of them. Now Ellery has a whole shelf of 45s with song poems by his dad.

Ellery Eskelin

This music has everything in the world going against it. It's completely artificial. It's a scam. I could probably list 15 different reasons why it shouldn't work. But for some reason, something comes through all this stuff. And I think that's part of the charm and attractiveness that it has.

The combination of the sentiment of the lyrics and the tune being so absurd, coupled with Rodd's delivery, which is actually like he's going for it. I mean, it's like a fine line between the fact that he knows that this is kind of a joke, but he's really trying to put something in it. And a lot of this stuff is right on that line. And I think that's almost an uncomfortable place to be, but it's really fascinating and attractive. It's like you want to cringe, but you're laughing, but you're really attracted to it all at the same time.

Nancy Updike

Ellery loves that rawness and confusion of song poems and not in a theoretical, oh, isn't that kitschy way. He likes listening to them. He says he'll put on a song poem CD just to listen to around the apartment, the same as any other CD, which may sound unimaginable and breathtaking. But here's the thing, when you listen to one song poem after another, you realize song poems are like a blind date you start out thinking you're going to hate. And then by the end of dinner and a movie, you've found several things you really dig about this person. And even if you're not going to marry them, they're definitely not like anyone you've ever dated before.

[MUSIC - "THE FLITTING FIREFLY" BY RODD KEITH]

And so it is with fleeting loves, they sparkle for a while. But all too soon, they leave you on your senses to beguile. As we listened, it occurred to me that I had never heard a firefly used as a metaphor for love before.

Ellery Eskelin

That's the great thing about the song poem. Every metaphor, every mixed metaphor that you could imagine is in there. And the topics are great. There's politics, love songs, hippies, dance crazes. Do the pig. Do the turkey. Space travel.

Nancy Updike

The pig is not a dance that really made it big.

Ellery Eskelin

It should have, though. I mean, check it out. It would have if this had gotten an air play.

[MUSIC - "DO THE PIG" BY RODD KEITH]

Nancy Updike

The stylistic range of the songs Ellery's father wrote is dizzying. It's 10 years of work from someone who was very, very productive. Of course, he wasn't always working because sometimes he was busy doing things like taking LSD and going out on Sunset Boulevard wearing only a rain coat, and then accidentally catching the rain coat on fire when he tried to light a cigarette, and then taking the raincoat off and being arrested for public nudity. But when he was working, he would record, say, 30 songs a day, one right after another, no rehearsals, no second takes. So Rodd would record maybe some James Bond theme sounding song. Then a dance song. Then some psychedelic number. And then something that sounds like the early Beatles or Ray Davies.

Ellery Eskelin

At first, when I was first listening to these records, I would hear things and not be sure it was him, even if it had his name on the label. It took me a while. Now I can tell it's him, no matter what he's doing. I can tell whatever that grain of-- whatever that is in his voice that makes it him, I can tell.

Nancy Updike

What an amazing way to know your father, that you have this sort of musical intimacy with him, that-- I mean, you never saw him face to face.

Ellery Eskelin

Yeah, that's true. I can almost tell the songs that he wrote too, just by the devices that he used and the chord changes. Small, little things.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Nancy Updike

That's Ellery on the sax. It's from his first album, which is a collection of jazz standards. With his father on the other side of the country, that's the music Ellery grew up listening to and liking.

Ellery Eskelin

I used to be not a snob about it, because I've always had very broad tastes in music, but I definitely was brought up feeling that there was good music and that there was bad music. I mean, I grew up not liking rock and roll, which was really strange for somebody my age. Every kid in the first grade was talking about the Beatles and trying to get their hair to grow long. And I'm thinking about Stan Getz or John Coltrane or something like that.

Nancy Updike

By the time Ellery heard his father's music the second time, when he was in his early thirties, his musical taste had already changed and broadened. But the song poems were just a different world altogether. They were so unfettered by any pretensions of the art world or the world of serious music. It was inspiring. Ellery says in the last few years since finding his father's music and discovering song poems, he's been having a ball buying music he never liked or never heard as a kid and discovering he loves it. Iggy Pop, Yoko Ono, The White Album. And Ellery's own music is changing. Frankly, it's getting weirder, much less like jazz standards and much more like song poems. They have this experimental, "hey, let's see how this sounds" feel. It's making him a jazz outcast these days, which is fine with him. When a reviewer sniffed that a section of one of his albums sounded like, quote, "the buzzing of a thousand demented insects," his reaction was, "Yeah. And?"

Nancy Updike

Was it a disappointment, something that you had to sort of go through and get over to think, OK, my father isn't the Mozart of jazz. Damn it, I'm not related to a Coltrane. I'm related to--

Ellery Eskelin

But I think I am related to one. I mean, the music didn't change that.

Nancy Updike

Really?

Ellery Eskelin

No, people have told me. I mean, they use exactly those words. It's like, he was like a Mozart. He could write this. He could do that. All the cliches. But when people tell them, I can tell that they're really heartfelt. So my estimation of my father has never wavered, and I've never been disappointed in him. I've only been disappointed in the fact that I've never been able to find more of what he was able to do. Not that I'm dissatisfied with song poem music at all. I'm thrilled to have it. It's just that I know that there was more to his personality, and there was more to his life. And the fact that I never met him, I'm hungry for anything I can get.

I started out with almost nothing to go on except for that one cassette and two pictures. That was all.

Nancy Updike

If you could have a conversation with him now, what would you say?

Ellery Eskelin

Wow. Obviously, there are a million things I'd want to know. I just think it would be being with him that would be the whole thing. Not unlike these dreams in which, OK, he's here. We are together. And we're doing normal kind of stuff, like we're going to go out and hang out. W'ere going to do this. We're going to do that. And we're not going to call a huge amount of attention to the fact that there's this profound, enormous thing going on. We're not really going to address that so much as we're just going to live. We're just going to-- do you know what I mean?

Nancy Updike

Would you want to play music with him?

Ellery Eskelin

Sure.

Nancy Updike

This is the one time in the interview you've cried. Why?

Ellery Eskelin

Because I guess up to now, we've just sort of talked in terms of secondhand stories and things that I've thought a lot of that I'm able to recite, that I've said many times before, that I've thought about a lot, that I'm familiar with. I've been able to regulate my degree of emotion to that. But when you ask me to indulge in a fantasy or something like that, that's very direct.

Nancy Updike

He never met his father. It's not just that he died. Ellery never met him. Ellery says losing his father has only gotten harder as he's gotten older. When we talked, he'd just passed the age his father was when he died, 37. Ellery's father appears on Ellery's new album, Green Bermudas. About half the songs sample song poems written by his father and some other song poems too.

[MUSIC - "GREEN BERMUDAS"BY ELLERY ESKELIN WITH ANDREA PARKINS]

Ellery's father reminded me of this writer Philip K. Dick, who spent his life doing this intricate science fiction writing, all the while dreaming of writing something entirely different, something that would be considered great literature, huge and influential, a classic, not just a cult sci-fi hit. He died young and obscure. But now, 25 years after his death, you've probably seen some of his work without even realizing it. His sci-fi stories and novels have spawned or influenced an astonishing number of films, Blade Runner, Total Recall, The Matrix, Minority Report, The Truman Show, A Scanner Darkly. A collection of his writing is now in the Library of America in the company of Twain, Whitman, Roth.

I think most of us are like that, like Philip Dick or Ellery's father. Most of us are toiling away at daily work that doesn't seem as important to us as the ambitious dreams we have for ourselves. We're convinced that we're not living up to our potential, that there's a better part of ourselves that just hasn't expressed itself yet. Until the day our lives are over and what's left is that daily work, whatever it is, whatever we gave it.

Act Four. Grace Note.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Grace Note.

To end our program on a more hopeful note, we have this story from Joel Kostman. It details some of the bitterness that we've heard from others so far this hour about the life of artists, plus something else we haven't. Joel Kostman is a locksmith in New York city. This is from a book of stories he's written about his experiences on the job.

Joel Kostman

"A musician is a peanut," he says. The musician sits on a chair and talks to me while I work. He's wearing a nicely ironed white, short-sleeve shirt and a pair of green chinos. His hair is black, flecked with gray. It's short and neatly combed. "Yeah," he says. "Nothing but a damn peanut."

He lives in a tiny, one-room apartment underneath the Manhattan Bridge. Trains roar by overhead. Sometimes the noise is so loud, it is difficult to hear what he is saying. "I never should have gone to Juilliard," he says. "It really messed up my perspective."

He stands and walks over to the kitchen, which is a sink and a half refrigerator. There is a hot plate sitting on the counter beneath a homemade shelf on which some cups are stacked next to a few plates. Two sauce pans hang from hooks from the shelf. "You're in your own special little classical world there. It's not the real world. Musicians don't rate in the real world. Took me years to get that straight." He opens the refrigerator and removes a pitcher. "You want some iced tea?" "No, thanks," I say. He pours a glass for himself.

"All I ever really wanted to do was play popular music," he says. "But I was just a kid. What did I know? Juilliard was my parents' idea. I came all the way from Hawaii. Luckily, I was smart enough to drop out." "What instrument do you play?" I asked. "Guitar. You know what really bugs me?" "What?" "Americans can't play Hawaiian guitar. They only copy."

I have already figured out what's wrong with his lock. It'll be an easy repair, so I allow myself the opportunity to continue the conversation. "You know, there was a hit song when I was a kid," I say, "came out in the '50s. It was called 'Hawaiian Love Song' or something like that. It was an instrumental with the Hawaiian guitar." I sing a little of what I think was the melody. "Right," the musician says. "Americans. That was typical. The big hit Hawaiian guitar song was done by Americans. Junk."

"When that song came out, though, there was a lot of work for us. I spent years on the road playing Hawaiian music. Spent some great days in Kansas City. Ever been there?" "No," I say. "Great town. I played with some fine musicians. First-class gig all the way. Didn't last long, though. Harder times after that."

We hear the sound of an instrument coming from outside. The musician frowns and walks to the window. He's stirring the sugar around in his glass. I look too. There's a guy leaning up against a car playing a saxophone. "He thinks he can play," he says. "You know him?" The musician sips his tea. "Unfortunately," he says. "He wouldn't know good music if he tripped over it."

The sax player looks up and waves. "You almost ready?" he calls. The musician yells, "B flat." Then he steps back into the room, and he says, "What an idiot. He makes the same mistake every time."

"I'm almost finished here," I say. "Take your time," he says. "We're only going to Staten Island. The wedding's not till 3:00. He's not paying me enough to get there early."

I am engaged to be married in two months. My fiancee, Rebecca, and I have hired a classical trio to play at our wedding. "So are you in a band? I ask. The musician laughs to himself. "Not a chance. His guitar player's sick. Every time his guitar player gets sick, he calls me to bail him out." A train rattles by. The cups and plates shake. "I'm a bartender," I think he says.

"So are you finally ready?" the sax player asks. He's sitting on the hood of the car, holding his instrument between his legs. "No," the musician growls. "I just came down with my guitars to tell you I'm going to be another 20 minutes."

A group of six kids is standing a few feet away, watching. Two Chinese girls, three early adolescent black boys, and a little white boy who couldn't be more than five with a marine-type brush cut. They look like they are posing for a family portrait, tallest in the rear, the little one in the middle, everyone waiting to say, "Cheese." "Friendly guy, huh?" the sax player says to me. "That's the only reason I give him a chance to go on these gigs, because he's such a nice guy. He can't play a lick." "Right," the musician says.

The sax player is middle-aged with a salt-and-pepper goatee. He's wearing a small black cap, the kind Pete Seeger wears, with a snap in the front over the brim. "Get the lock fixed?" he asks. "Yes," I say. He lifts the horn to his lips and begins to play. I recognize the melody. "Going to the Chapel and We're Going to Get Married." I wonder if we can get the classical trio to work up this tune.

[MUSIC - "GOING TO THE CHAPEL" BY BARRY WINOGRAD AND JOHN SIEGLE]

One of the Chinese girls, who's about 9 or 10, starts clapping. She holds the palms of her hands straight up like cymbals and alternately brings one down onto the other. The rest of the group joins in. Each one moves differently, one swaying, one lifting and dropping his shoulders to the beat. The sax player slides off the car and holds the instrument out toward them while he plays. They start to dance around him. He hops up onto the sidewalk, and the kids follow. He circles the car with the kids in tow. "Gee, I really love you, and we're going to get ma-a-arried." A young black woman appears out of nowhere and is standing next to the car singing. She has what sounds to me like a professional voice. The musician nods and smiles at her. "Going to the chapel of love," she croons.

People on the sidewalk across the street stop and begin clapping too. A train goes by on the Manhattan Bridge directly above us. The kids are still dancing. The people are clapping. And the sax man is playing. But all I can hear is the train. After about 15 seconds, the noise subsides, and I hear the sound of a guitar.

The musician, with one foot up on the fender of the car, is playing a rhythmic accompaniment. He smiles at me. The sax player comes up and stands next to him. They pick up the pace, and the people clap faster and faster. Finally, while the sax man is playing a string of cascading notes, the musician, strumming furiously, lifts his guitar handle into the air and brings it down with a chop. They end at precisely the same moment. We all applaud enthusiastically. "OK, let's go to a wedding," the musician says.

Ira Glass

Joel Kostman's book is Keys to the City: True Tales of a New York City Locksmith.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike. Contributing editors Sarah Vowell, Jack Hitt, and Margy Rochlin. Our senior editor for this show was Paul Tough. Production help from Alex Blumberg, Laura Doggett, Emi Takahara, [? Sahini ?] [? Davenport ?], and [? Vija ?] [? Navarro ?]. [? Shojow ?] [? Young ?] runs our website. Barry Winograd played sax, and John Siegle played guitar in our rendition of "Going to the Chapel."

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can get our free weekly podcast or listen to old shows online.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who meets with his music staff every single week, looks at their playlists, and declares--

Ellery Eskelin

This music has everything in the world going against it. It's completely artificial. It's a scam.

Ira Glass

And we started today's program with Leonardo da Vinci. Let's end with Leonardo as well. This is a quote from one of his notebooks. "To the ambitious, for whom neither the bounty of life nor the beauty of the world suffice to content, it comes as penance that life for them is squandered and that they possess neither the benefits nor the beauty of the world. And if they are unable to perceive what is divine in nature, which is all around them, how will they be able to see their own divinity, which is sometimes hidden?" I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

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