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Joz Norris


Tape 139: Who Needs Truth?

  • Tape 139: Who Needs Truth?

A few weeks ago I wrote this newsletter about the idea of writing about real people, with little idea that that subject was about to become a headline news story thanks to the brouhaha (never use that word, just wanted to use it, had a great time doing it, would recommend) arising from Richard Gadd’s Baby ReindeerJust to clarify up at the top, this week’s newsletter is not really about whether or not people should write about real people, or whether or not Richard, or Clerkenwell Films, or Netflix, made mistakes in the show’s production, or any of that stuff. Plenty of other people have written more than enough think-pieces about that already, and I’ve not even seen Baby Reindeer yet (though I’m very aware of what its story is thanks to the original stage show), so I’m not in a position to comment on that specific example. I’ve also more or less outlined my thoughts on writing about real people in that previous post, but for the sake of clarity, my headline thoughts on the issue are:

  1. I believe every artist has the right to tell the story of things that happened to them
  2. I believe every artist has a responsibility to tell their stories in ways that make an active effort to minimise the harm they can do to people in the real world
  3. I always feel uncomfortable when I watch autobiographical work that seems to cast judgment on real people who are not given the opportunity to tell their own stories
  4. From what I’ve heard, Baby Reindeer is superb, but it also sounds like Netflix might have failed Richard by not stepping in and providing more careful oversight of the show’s relationship to truth, instead pursuing a juicy ratings hit by aggressively pushing the show’s “true story” credentials.

That last point leads me onto what this week’s Tape is really about, which is the relationship audiences seem to have with truth these days, and the way that relationship is exploited by the marketing around a piece of art. The rest of this newsletter isn’t really about Baby Reindeer, and is instead principally about Tom Waits.

I got into Tom Waits when I was at uni and started expanding my musical taste beyond Supertramp, ELO and Elton John (who are still all-timers for me, but they were literally all I listened to throughout my teens and it was high time I tried something new, by which of course I mean “something else from the 70s”). Tom Waits’s music caught my imagination like nothing I’d ever heard before, and I devoured everything he’d ever written and recorded within the space of a few months, and occasionally watched or read interviews he’d given over the years.

For those unfamiliar with Waits’s work, he’s always been notoriously hard to pin down in interviews. This interview from 1979 has been memed to death as a potential inspiration for Heath Ledger’s Joker, but it’s also a really good example of Waits’s default position in response to scrutiny, which is to dial up his affectations and disappear into a character. Sometimes it struck me as shyness, but gradually I got more of a handle on it – he simply didn’t like giving people access to his real self, so he kept the mask on. His songs are famously inscrutable – they don’t deal much in personal truths, instead inhabiting strange, fantastical worlds that feel like movie sets or dreamscapes, although the snatches of emotion you glimpse in them feel potent and real – all the more real for the fact that you can’t really understand the context they’re unfolding in.

The more Waits wrote these songs that seemed to elude easy definition, and the more he attempted to wriggle away from direct questioning in interviews, the more people tried to pin him down to some sort of definitive reading of his work. Eventually, he came up with a stock response to the question “What are your songs about?” which he would trot out in interviews again and again:

“You know when your friend takes you to see a movie, and you’re sitting there in the cinema, and it’s a really, really bad movie? And then your friend leans over and goes “You know, this is based on a true story.” Does it really improve the film?”

When I was getting into Tom Waits, and also starting to perform stand-up comedy at the same time, I loved that answer. It seemed to express something I’d been trying to put into words about making and consuming creative work, and I’ve thought about it more or less constantly ever since.

I’ve never looked for truth in the art and comedy and music I enjoy. I’ve never needed it to be true, or tried to figure out the ways in which it might be true. I basically don’t care. I just want it to mean something to me. make it true, by finding something in my life that it connects to, and shines a light on. I couldn’t care less whether something really happened to the artist in order to make them shine that light on that exact spot. I assume it did, because why else do people make stuff? But I couldn’t care less what it was. I’ve always believed that audiences don’t care about whether or not something is real. They just want to be made to feel something.

My feelings on this ultimately aren’t as puritanical as Tom Waits’s himself, because the song that ranks, for me, as one of his most astonishing, is one he ultimately regretted because he felt it gave away too much truth. But for me, what’s so amazing about the song is what it chooses not to reveal, and the way it only offers up something resembling truth in the most abstract of glimpses. The song is called “Kentucky Avenue,” and you should give it a listen because it’s an all-time great:

It’s pretty much the only Waits song which, by his own admission, contains direct fragments of his own life, with the first part of the song consisting of flashes of his own childhood complete with the real names of friends and neighbours:

Eddie Grace’s Buick

Got four bullet holes in the side

And Charlie De Lisle is sitting in the top

Of an avocado tree

And Mrs Storm will stab you with a steak knife

If you step on her lawn

And so on. As the song goes on, these flashes of a forgotten childhood become increasingly delinquent and violent – “Let’s follow that fire truck, I think your house is burning down; Let’s go down to the hobo jungle and kill some rattlesnakes with a trowel” – until it reaches a strange, beautiful climax:

I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair

And a magpie’s wings

And I’ll tie them to your shoulders

And your feet

I’ll steal a hacksaw from my dad

Cut the braces off your legs

And we’ll bury them tonight

Out in the cornfield

To this day, I don’t know what this section is about in terms of its relationship with the truth. The “you” is never identified by name in the same way that every other character in the song has been, but the fragments of truth throughout the first half of the song lend it s weird authenticity even as it slips away from easy definition.

I have no idea if Tom Waits had a disabled friend or neighbour and this passage was some sort of vision he had as a child of trying to help them. I don’t know if the imagery is purely imaginary and has nothing to do with the autobiographical fragments elsewhere in the song. I don’t need to know. The images of freedom and flight combined with images of wanton violence paint such an incredible picture in my head, and I know exactly what it makes me feel, and what it makes me think about in my own life. The last thing I need is an aggressive marketing campaign telling me I simply must listen to “Kentucky Avenue” because it’s a true story. It doesn’t matter.

I used to think that this was simply how art worked, and that the way I felt about it was the same way audiences in general feel about it. We turn the work on ourselves and all we need for it to be meaningful is the barest glimpse of the truth. I never needed to know who Eddie Grace or Charlie De Lisle or Mrs Storm were. They were only there so that the song’s big moment, this abstract, almost unreadable image, shone out and felt more potent.

As time has gone by and I’ve learned more about audiences, and as the ways in which audiences think has developed, I’ve realised that not everybody looks at the art they consume in the same way. It turns out audiences do have a hunger for truth, for detail. Armchair detectives try to find out exactly what did or didn’t happen, no matter who they harm in the process. It seems like the creative exchange between artist and audience has been flipped on its head in these cases – rather than finding something in a piece of work that resonates with them, and walking away with it like a secret, audiences seem obsessed with inserting themselves into the work, so that they can find out exactly what it’s about.

Now this tendency has become so widespread as to be actively sought out by corporations like Netflix as they try to engineer their own true crime sensations, and I realise with some sadness that it was always there. It’s the exact same impulse that made Tom Waits wriggle away from the interview process in the first place, to come up with quirks and stock analogies to deflect away from people’s insistence that he share something of his real self.

So much of the act of making creative work these days seems to involve needing to hand over parts of yourself to your audience in order to continue making in the first place. Audiences crave companionship, authenticity, access to the person themself and not just to the things they make.

What do you think? Do you look for truth and realness and detail when you enjoy an artist’s work? Or do you just look for that spark of something meaningful you can walk away with and hold onto, regardless of whether you understand whether the work was “real” or “true?” I’d love to know what you all think, as I increasingly realise how big a minority I’m in with my feelings on this!

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Geniuses and weirdos Ada Player and Bron Waugh have made a wonderful Blap for Channel 4 about big fishes in small ponds set in the Peak District and co-starring Ele McKenzie and Freddie Meredith. It’s excellent and you should give it a watch!

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – My friend Grace took me for a birthday lunch and said something about broad beans that made me laugh all over my ramen.

Book Of The Week – Still reading Pretending by Holly Bourne. I was right, it is a depressing and enraging read. Very good, though.

Album Of The Week – McCartney by Paul McCartney. I’ve decided it’s time I get into Paul’s solo stuff. I’m in my mid-30s now, I can’t keep putting it off forever. So far, I’ve listened to two Wings albums (both a lot of fun) and this is the first solo album of his I’ve tried. Don’t think much of it, to be honest. Sounds like a bunch of demos. Maybe he’s not the best Beatle.

Film Of The Week – Love Lies Bleeding. This is excellent. It’s a grindhouse thriller about a gym manager and a bodybuilder who get together and then embark on a revenge mission against Ed Harris’s bug-eating crime boss. It’s so nice to see something this original and weird and bold in the cinema. Do try to see it if you can.

That’s all for this week! As ever, let me know what you thought, and if you enjoy this newsletter then please feel free to send it to a friend or encourage others to subscribe. Take care of yourselves until next time,

Joz xx

PS I have no plans to actually charge for this newsletter or put it behind a paywall, but I do write it for free and the comedy and media industries are in a perilous state right now, especially for freelancers. If you value the Therapy Tapes and enjoy what they give to you, and want to support my work and enable me to keep writing and creating, you can make a one-off donation to my Ko-Fi account, and it’s very gratefully appreciated.

PPS Someone knitted Dangermouse and Penfold and put them on a postbox:

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