So I thunk to myself, “There’s gotta be some folk guy who shuts up and plays.” I googled "best folk guitarist" and discovered John Fahey. It was exactly what I needed:
There is a Buddhist story about a little boy who, way back in 9th century China, watched a Zen Master speak about the moon in a sermon. The Master lifted his finger to point at the moon again and again. It was a very good sermon and everyone in the town went bonkers. The next day the boy tried to replicate the Master’s sermon by ostentatiously pointing to the moon over and over. And so, the Zen Master shot the little boy in the face with an AK-47.
Wait, no. He cut his finger off. It’s still a horrific and unacceptable pedagogical technique in any country or century, but the point stands: Hey kid, don’t confuse the finger for the moon. Don’t confuse the Master for the Zen. Don’t confuse the singer for the song.
I spent decades as a finger-guy and suddenly feel like I am missing a whole lot of moon. Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Sam Cooke, the Stones, the Beastie Boys, Ice Cube, The Who—each offered me a cult of personality, and again and again I signed up. Throughout high school and college I hung album covers and band pictures on my walls. The bands and musicians I liked were icons in a truly religious sense. They were models of behavior, of cool, of swagger, of romanticism, of what it meant to be a man. Whether it was a hard-assed, hard-partying rapper or a romantic, yearning rocker, these men’s images (they were all men) were as important to me as their music. It took me a while before I realized that that was a problem.
John Fahey offers the opposite. It’s just a pure sound coming over the speakers. I am not even sure what he looked like (video above added for all y’alls, haven’t watched it). Partly that’s because I have only been a fan, an admittedly mild and novice one, for a little over a month, but it’s also because I feel like he does not want me to like him in the way that, say, Bruce Springsteen or Mick Jagger does. From what I have seen of his album covers, there is no hard rockin’ pose. (Maybe hard folkin’.) He did not talk at all on the live album I heard. He just played. Really, really, really well.
Now, you know who is adorable? Both in the sense of “cute” and “worthy of saintly, iconic veneration”? The Boss.
Having named a mountain bike The Boss, I take a back seat to no other Bruce Springsteen fan. No artist has offered a higher ideal for me on how to be a man than Springsteen. He’s a romantic to the core but has more swagger than the biggest hard-ass. He’s a fun-times rocker worthy of doo-wop and twist acts from the 50s, but still manages to write dark, scary, and even depressing songs worthy of a Cormac McCarthy novel. (The entire Nebraska album, for example.) So yes, I love Bruce and ride a Cannondale that shares his nick-name.
But man, this album cover is kind of ridiculous:
In such arch-cool poses, Bruce offers a kind of reverse androgyny. He’s not both sexes (though he was a dude-with-earring pioneer). Instead, he offers a fantasy for both sexes. In the Darkness photo: he’s snuck into the kitchen to see you, miss, but doesn’t give a damn if your man is still home. Or if you’re a guy: he’s ready to go get that ’69 Chevy with the 396 (Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor) that you and he keep parked at a 7-11 for some strange reason. The picture suggests sex, danger, sex-danger, and above all confidence.
At least, so I think! I stared at the covers long enough to built up these theories, right? So go ahead. Take that analysis with skepticism. Roll your eyes at my jokes and allusions (to “Racing in the Street”) that deflect any sort of homoerotic admission that, sure, Bruce is an attractive man. But whatever my convoluted history with his album covers is, I have a point. A really, really good point which I hope you admire and adore.
And that’s the problem. I wanted to be like Dylan, Bruce, Mike D, and Ice Cube so much that I wanted to be album-cover worthy. The romance that pop-musicians sell is not just that you can bust out of your dusty old town, but that you can live vicariously through them on their world tours and parties and sycophantic interviews. You too can be adored. Well, finally I can say—fuck all that. Somebody chop my finger off.
I now want the thing itself. I want the tone and that’s it. I want to be moved but I don’t want to see, or even feel, the hand that moves me. Tonight, as ever, I believe in the promised land. I just no longer think Bruce Springsteen or anyone else will get me there.