Instead of watching the State of the Union address tonight, which feels irrelevant when you live in a world where “No transsexuals in the military” is something that happens at random, on the internet, I watched the new documentary on the Avett Brothers on HBO. Quick review: it’s a whole lot of watching them play and sing, and a little context besides, but that’s what I was hoping for, honestly. Soul food.
I’m feeling antsy. Anxious. I stumbled across my comp essay for my MFA this afternoon. It’s been about four years since I wrote it. The good news is, I think I’m still writing the way I was trying to write, based on that essay, which is to say, opening up my imagination, not holding back or worrying about criticism in the way I found myself completing my first novel. The bad news is it’s been four years. I still haven’t finished this book.
Before this documentary on the Avett Brothers came out, I saw an interview they gave after the first screening of the film, where the brothers took audience questions. Someone asked how they pressed on after the album they’re making during the documentary (“True Sadness”) got some less than positive reviews. Seth Avett said he never looks at reviews because if he did he wouldn’t be able to write songs the way they write songs. So he didn’t know about the negative reviews, which I believed, because he looked genuinely surprised. What way do they write songs? From the gut, from the soul, so they say, which is something easy to feel in their music but also something difficult for a cynic like me to believe.
And yes, during the documentary they do talk about fame, about success, getting out of North Carolina, selling records. Scott Avett tells a story of himself in a lip sync contest at eight years old, imagining some New York record exec happening by and signing him to stardom. They say the things that rock stars say, like my family is the most important thing, all that. Plus they’re on a major label, produced by Rick Rubin, who has worked with everyone from Run-D.M.C. to Metallica. Including Slipknot. And Tom Petty. Black Sabbath. Lady Gaga. Seriously, like everyone. That Rubin guy is a crazed-looking mofo, btw. He’s got a beard like he’s in ZZ Top (he’s also worked with ZZ Top) and he talks about producing music like he’s leading an undergraduate fiction workshop. I don’t want to tell them what to sing, he says, I just want to help them write the songs they need to write.
So, like I said, the documentary is mostly these guys playing and singing, watching this album generate and grow, which is neat. Near the end they show the entire recording of the song “No Hard Feelings.” The Avett Brothers band actually has seven members, collected over the years as needed and mostly getting together to play shows, apparently, as this is the first album that all seven people have recorded at the same time together. This five minutes or so of this song’s recording shows all seven people playing their parts, Seth singing the lead part and playing guitar, Scott singing harmony over his banjo accompaniment, Rick Rubin jamming by himself behind glass in the background, hips rocking, beard swaying to and fro. They’ve shown the final few seconds of a recording before, where the artists all kind of freeze, hold still, hold their breath, to have some silent space at the end of the track, and at the end of “No Hard Feelings” the same thing happens. And then those few seconds expire, and everyone allows themselves to move. No one appears to be very happy, although it was a great take. No one except Rick Rubin, who comes into the recording area of the studio, you can tell just bursting at the seams, wanting to tell them how great a take that was, and he tries his best. Seth stands up, says thank you awkwardly. Scott stays sitting there. The other musicians in the band start to file out. The keyboardist, I think, or possibly the drummer, both of whom were in their own isolated rooms, but I think it was the keyboardist who came out last and told the brothers they hit it out of the park, with that song. They hit a home run. The brothers receive that news just as awkwardly. Seth says they need a break, need a breather, need to take five before the next song.
Outside, the brothers look shaken up. The cameraman, or the director, either Judd Apatow or the other director, asks Seth if he can ask him a question, as they sit there in the near-dusk light on the back porch of the studio in Malibu. Seth says sure thing. Judd (or the other one) asks what it is about that song that makes it so emotionally taxing. Because you can tell, these guys look like they just got kicked in the diaphragm by, I guess, true sadness. Seth, the younger brother, starts to hem and haw and try to come up with a good answer. Then Scott says, without looking directly at the camera or the question asker, that it’s something he still wrestles with, being congratulated on singing songs like this. “No Hard Feelings” is about dying, contemplating dying, and the release from life’s ugliness it will provide (they hope). So you only get to write a song like this by living life, experiencing life and suffering, and that’s a weird thing to be congratulated on, suffering, and he doesn’t know how to handle that.
Seth says he gets it, and he tries to imagine they’re just being congratulated on having a clean take, on playing their instruments and singing well. Scott’s like, yeah, but. It’s not that. Seth says yeah but that’s how I get by, and Scott you can tell isn’t buying it, because Seth is only slightly less visibly shaken than his brother, and Scott asks him Really? You just ignore it like that? And Seth says yeah, like what else can you do.
That’s not the end of that scene, and that’s not the part of the movie that made me cry, but it was my favorite part. Because I know if I am going to come correct in the writing of this novel, if it succeeds, not even commercially, not even to the point where people congratulate me for writing it, but if it simply succeeds on its own merit, than that’s the best possible feeling I could hope for. That emotionally exhausted, gut-check, raw nerve tenderness, the melancholy, bittersweet satisfaction of evoking pure, naked pain. They weren’t unhappy with the take, they knew it was a great take, and it did the song justice, exactly the way they wanted it to go, but at its completion they couldn’t even enjoy it, so much as be relieved to have finally expelled it.
What a strange profession this is.
A much better feeling is coming across an interview with a literary journal you respect, and a few questions in the editors are asked, What are you looking for in the work you publish? and they say Oh well you should try your best to write like this guy, and then they name-drop someone who was in practically every writing workshop with you as an undergrad at Ohio State, someone whose writing you’ve always liked and whose critiques you trusted and now is enjoying a measure of well-earned success. I’m not gonna lie, that shit is pretty fun, when it happens.