Time is an effective filter for art. The stories and manifestos that mean so much on the day of their release wash away. The artifacts that somehow sneak their way from box to box, dorm room to apartment to house, from hard drive to hard drive blossom with new meaning.
One of the cool things about getting old are the bands that survive. They’ve made their money and are doing their best, unencumbered, trying to impress no one, work. They possess both the “fuck it” attitude of youth, and the polished skills that come with years of experience. And, they’re back to playing small venues where you can see them cheap enough to still buy a t-shirt, surrounded by devotees who love the stuff from their new album.
I’m not sure how I kept Counting Crows. I didn’t care much for them when their radio single mega-hits hit, no more than I did for Mr. Big or Hole. But every album since there were two or three songs, what we grown folks call B-sides, that would transcend what DJ’s could find. Every three or four years a new album. Every three or four years a few diamonds.
I’m not sure how I started teaching writing. I am one for taking the scenic route, bypassing the highway of a career in just about anything. Somewhere along the way I went from sitting in workshops to leading them, from taking classes to teaching them. And somewhere I came to realize, in teaching them, that the nouns matter.
Anna Begins is an early track. It’s from those sessions that happen before the band hits, that block of songs that come from coffee houses and scratching on napkins. It’s super personal and shrouded in mystery, based on something the artist is not yet ready to name.
Washington Square comes later, fifteen years in, and Counting Crows have found a way to be clear, artistic, articulate, simple, and deep. It’s no longer the artist searching, or trying to protect someone’s identity. It’s Picasso in two strokes drawing a bull. It’s the craftsman just… saying.
What separates these skill sets are the nouns.
Nouns come in at least two varieties, concrete and abstract. Some you use to name a vague idea and some you hit with a hammer. And pronouns, good lord, the worst of writing is littered with pronouns. When you don’t want to name the person, or narrow it down enough for them to be noticeable, then the drama comes between me and she and him and them.
What abstract nouns don’t give you is the ability to set yourself down in a time and place, and sit face to face with the artist, with their creations. What concrete nouns give you are the particulars, a chair, a table, a waitress named Bonnie with bright red hair and a tattoo on her left wrist.
Anna Begins begins with, “My friend assures me it’s all or nothing. I am not worried. I am not overly concerned. My friend implores me for one time only, make an exception. I am not worried.”
Washington Square starts, “Sold my piano. It couldn’t come with me. I locked up my bedroom, and I walked out into the air. Nothing I needed was left there behind me, just memories of walking through Washington Square.”
In the first I am left to wonder what’s going on and where is my place in the story. The imaginative leaps I must make are in the particulars. I must bring with me a situation, maybe with a friend of mine, where it has been all or nothing, and yet I was not overly concerned. What would that be? I have had people tell me, with confidence, that this song is about senseless sex, or rape, or suicide, or being too drunk to care.
In the second I am right there. And although I have never owned or sold a piano, I can make the leap to understand a piano both as a gateway to music and as a symbol of a weighty life that makes it difficult to move, something beautiful, but with heft and gravity.
I hear young writers arguing for the value in leaving things vague, leaving space for the reader to insert their own life. But that’s not how life works, it’s not how the art that stays stays. I know that from age. Feelings and impressions burn away. But I remember the strands of hair being pushed thoughtlessly behind an ear, the drops of sweat that fall from being close with another person and intense, the journals we used to carry, the boots we used to wear.
The stuff that holds lies in the particulars. At this age I can make those imaginative leaps. I can guess what a thief stealing a silver spoon means. But I have no space or care to fill in the faces and scents of blank people mired in angst for some unknown reason. I think of the great ending of Stanley Kunitz’s poem The Portrait, telling a story about his mother slapping him as a child. “In my sixty-fourth year / I can feel my cheek / still burning.”
That’s concrete. That’s a well-aged artist saying big things simply. That is why Washington Square outshines Anna Begins.