Great, Not Good

David Itzkoff: “You tell a story in one of the episodes about seeing a prime performance from Sam Kinison, whose world did not exactly intersect with yours. Did you get something out of that experience?”

Steve Martin: “Oh yeah. You know when someone’s killing it. But not always immediately. Sometimes it takes a couple of weeks to think about it. You have to go, What did I just see? I say the goal is not to be good – it’s to be great. The idea is to have the audience leave, and say, ‘You’ve got to see this.’ You have to work backwards from the result.”

“Steve Martin on Teaching You (and Himself) How to Be a Comedian”

My favorite story on this subject is told by one Richard Griffiths, manager majordomo, but before that a record exec, a publisher…and an agent.

Richard booked a gig in a basement club for Paul Kossoff’s Back Street Crawler, with the opening act being AC/DC.

Only one problem, on the way to the gig, Kossoff perished on the plane. But AC/DC performed anyway. To six people. Who just stood there silently as the band went through its entire act, parading Angus on shoulders throughout the venue, the whole deal. And when the music stopped, the attendees bolted. Richard was crestfallen, but an hour later, the club was overflowing… You see each and every one of those attendees had run out to a pay phone to tell their buds…YOU’VE GOT TO SEE THIS!

And history was made.

And then there’s the tale told by Al Kooper, music’s own Zelig, who famously produced Lynyrd Skynyrd. The first LP had just come out, “Free Bird” was far from being an FM staple, and Al got a call in Atlanta, where he was living, where the studio was, from Ronnie Van Zant in Jacksonville, saying the band had just written a new song and they wanted to come in and record it right away.

Al said yes, and within the week they did. But the track sat in the vaults for a year.

I asked Al did he know, that the song was gonna be such a giant hit.


Greatness is undeniable.

But hard to achieve.

In the era of scarcity little got made and less got promoted. And the barrier to entry was so high, wannabes were excluded. Every town has got a band that didn’t quite make it, that sold out every dance, got an indie deal, even made a record. And when you listen to those LPs you’re not wowed, thinking the country missed out on genius, but that they weren’t quite good enough.

This is hard to tell people, they don’t want to hear it.

This is like so much in life. If you’re downtrodden and unkempt, chances are the supermodel does not want to date you. If you’re broke with no track record, you cannot get five minutes of Lloyd Blankfein’s time, never mind Mark Zuckerberg’s.

But today people believe they’re entitled to it.

Greatness is elusive, hard to achieve, but when you do, you know it.

I had this conversation recently, where a drummer told me nobody knows what’s great, nobody knows what’s a hit. That’s untrue, ask any creator. When you hit it far over the fence, YOU KNOW!

And people want to hear it and own it and spread the word about it.

Hell, I even had this experience myself two days ago. I’m reading all this hogwash about the Twitter numbers, how they’re going to disappoint, how the company is on the downswing, and my blood starts to boil. Less because I love Twitter than I hate conventional wisdom, groupthink, no one wants to analyze, say the unspoken, they just want to get along.

And then a synapse fired and I had to run to the computer, I had to weigh in on this.

And I did.

And then all hell broke loose.

I immediately heard from Richard Greenfield, the number one Wall Street analyst:

Subject: I’m only guy with twtr buy rating
Based on everything u basically said

Then, minutes later, far under an hour after I’d hit send, I heard from Jack Dorsey:

Re: Twitter Results

Bob, this is amazing. I’m biased but: you’re spot on. Thank you for your work and support. This note is an immensely helpful reminder of what’s important for our team.

Thank you.

Then Ben Thompson, of Stratechery fame, @benthompson, tweeted:

Good @Lefsetz on Twitter

And them my Twitter feed blew up. Four figures worth of retweets, you could watch the window scroll.

And when I woke up Wednesday morning, eager to see Twitter’s ultimate financial results, I’m reading the “New York Times” article and as I get to the end, the only analyst quoted, closing the article, is ME!

“Twitter’s Business Shrinks, but Investors See a Glimmer of Hope”

Now let’s be clear, I don’t have a PR person, I didn’t say a word on any social network, didn’t implore my friends to spread the word, I did nothing other than HIT SEND!

Of course I have an audience, probably larger than most bands plying the boards, but I’ve been building that audience for three decades, through multiple formats, I’ve never given up, and without the internet it would be so hard to reach these people.

But who the hell am I? Just a wanker with no office, no receptionist, no Armani suit, none of the trappings you’re supposed to need to play.

All I had was my brain and my experience.

Let’s be clear, if I’d been busy promoting myself I never would have had time to do the research to be up on this story. But I don’t call it research, I call it FUN! I love to follow the news, figure out what’s happening. And people can tell whether you’re interested or not, whether you’re informed or not.

And I don’t think what I wrote about Twitter was the best piece I’ve ever composed. But it had a truth and a validity and an insight that was unavailable in this whole wide world. That’s right, while you’re busy making me-too music with the usual suspects what people are really looking for is something different.

And I’d be lying if I told you all of the above didn’t make me feel good, really good. But so far not a dime has dropped in my pocket and although my Twitter feed is still rolling, @jack tweeted:

“‘It’s all happening on Twitter.’ Thank you @Lefsetz!…”,

the velocity has decreased, I’m already in the rearview mirror, we live in a what have you done for me lately culture.

Which is why I will keep writing. Not because I want to get ahead, not because I’ve got a marketing plan, but because I love to wrestle with the issues and nail it.

Do I always get it right, do I always write stuff that cuts like butter?

No, although I never issue crap, I’ve been doing it too long, have too much experience to fail that way.

And this is not meant as a victory lap but an illustration. If you pay your dues, if you get it right, if you do great work, you don’t have to lift another finger, the world will blow you up, because there are very few great things out there and we all want to share them.

Jonathan Demme

It’s the unexpected that gets you.

Once upon a time, there was a television movie review show known as “Siskel & Ebert,” or “At The Movies” or something like that, they kept changing it as they moved from PBS to Disney and gained more fame and you might be snickering saying OF COURSE but I was skiing with an educated 42 year old last week and he had no idea who Don Kirshner was so…

There used to be movie reviewers on TV, can you imagine it? They argued about what was up on screen, something no one even bothers to anymore. We analyze grosses, but what’s actually projected is not worth discussion. Hell, if you went to college in the last century one of the enticing departments was film, you started with the French classics and moved your way up through early Warren Beatty stuff like “Mickey One” but now I think people would rather study social networks and prepare for a job than expand their minds and this is all to say that way back when movies meant something different, especially in the seventies, before “Jaws,” before “Star Wars,” when we could all quote that sandwich scene from “Five Easy Pieces” while at the same time noting the film was flawed but Bob Rafelson’s sensibility was genius.

And movies were the national discussion. Not everybody cared about football and baseball was already starting to fade, putting the games on ever later in search of ratings, when you go for the money your image suffers and you ultimately pay a price, never forget it, but there wasn’t a soul who wasn’t interested in the movies. And despite all the hoopla about “Citizen Kane” and “Gone With The Wind” I’ll argue the best film of all time was made in the seventies, “Godfather II,” not that “I” was so shabby, but all of this is to say we were hooked on story, hooked on the experience, and the newspapers didn’t even publish the box office scores, those were for insiders only.

So one Sunday night I’m watching Siskel & Ebert on tape, I watched nothing in real time, burning out multiple VCRs in the process, it was 1986, and they were talking about this movie “Something Wild.” And neither raved, but there was something that was said that intrigued me, so I went to a nearly eleven o’clock show and was wowed.

Now at this time Jonathan Demme was most famous for “Handle With Care,” with Paul LeMat and Candy Clark, which critics raved about but no one had seen. Remember when there used to be critics’ favorites? Now the critics are irrelevant, disrespecting personages doing it for the access and the perks. We used to be addicted to Pauline Kael, she changed the discourse, now not only are critics irrelevant, they’ve mostly been canned, and most work cannot even get noticed, even if championed by those in the know.

I’d seen “Handle With Care” and loved the sweetness, but was not moved, and “Melvin and Howard” never lived up to the hype, and yes, Demme did “Stop Making Sense,” but we always attribute music documentary success to the act, not the director, and we gave credit to David Byrne for the big suit, ultimately followed up by Pee-wee’s big shoes in his “Adventure” movie that broke both Tim Burton and Danny Elfman and the point is those behind the scenes are recognized last, and my motivation to go see “Something Wild” had nothing to do with its director.

And going to the movies was like going on an airplane. Crowded at peak times, empty the rest. You could go and luxuriate alone, get a first class experience for under five bucks. Enjoying the coming attractions when you were still interested in those, not overwhelmed by by movie hype, that was a product of the nineties, when Thursday night television would collapse without studio commercials, and then slid back into your seat to enjoy the main event.

I had no idea where “Something Wild” was going. Now you know the whole flick before you go, even though in most instances you don’t, only a couple of times a year at most. The theatre is for old people, really old, the parents of baby boomers who survive, and the youngsters who need to act badly out of the purview of their parents. We’ve got Jeff Daniels, who was known for the weepie “Terms of Endearment,” which would now be a Lifetime movie, you wouldn’t even be able to sell it to Netflix, and “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” the Woody Allen special effects film. Daniels was a breezy likable, barely three-dimensional guy.

As for Melanie Griffith… I’d seen her debut in “Night Moves” and had been unimpressed, her tour-de-force in “Working Girl” was a few years off, and to be honest I liked her most in API’s “Joyride,” where the children of the famous went off to Alaska in search of trouble. Some of the best pictures were B flicks. Scorsese with “Boxcar Bertha,” and Demme started off there too.

So, when Griffith accosts Daniels outside the restaurant for not paying…

Like Jeff you’ve got no idea what is happening and where this is going.

She’s just messing with him.

We all want a woman to mess with us.

That’s what’s wrong with popular culture, it’s wrong. We hear all about strong men manipulating women when the truth is most men are weak and are manipulated by women. Men are easily led and want to be. Lead a man on an adventure, surprise him, and he’ll be yours for life.

So they end up in a hotel room where Griffith ultimately chains Daniels to the bed and that’s when you realize we’re not in Kansas anymore, that something more sinister is going on, that Griffith is not to be trusted.

That’s right, you can lead us along, but you can push us over the edge. Has happened to me. When physical violence is imposed upon one, when you no longer have any control…

Well, ultimately Daniels does not turn out to be who he seems and the two of them go to Griffith’s hometown, where she’s got the sweetest mother and the baddest ex and all you can do is hold on.

And I’m not talking one of today’s roller coaster rides. I’m talking a book, but it’s a movie, where you’re not sure what is happening but you’re damn sure you want to find out, knowing the conclusion is less important than the ride.

And the bottom line is “Something Wild” is flawed. It’s two movies in one, light and heavy, but that does not mean when I exited the theatre my jaw had not dropped. I’d tell you I wanted to tell everybody about it but that would be wrong. What I really wanted to do, like in “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” was to climb into the screen and meet these people, hang out in this movie, belong.

That’s what our art used to be.

Now the music is to dance in the club. Who’d want to sit in with thirty writers and Swedes as they painstakingly construct this crap?

And the movies literally don’t star people, but superheroes.

And let’s be clear, TV is good, but that old experience of sitting in the vast theatre in the dark, that’s gone.

But we were all addicted, and we needed people to feed our habit, like Jonathan Demme.

He waxed and he waned, he won and he lost. “Married to the Mob” did not live up to the hype, turned out Michelle Pfeiffer was beautiful, but could not carry a movie.

But “Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia” were huge successes, deservedly so, but straightforward filmmaking that could have been executed decades before by someone else. All about story, and tension and…

The last Demme flick I loved was “Rachel Getting Married,” which stiffed, when did we decide that gross determined quality? Featuring Anne Hathaway this was not a star-driven film so much as an explication of the horrors of being a member of a family, where there’s always one outsider/disrupter, who illuminates the fact that you’re all related but you have so much trouble getting along, that you’re born into this inferno that might consume you if you don’t escape.

Should you see it?

Depends what you’re looking for. They tell us no one is looking for truth, even though we live it every day, that we all want escape. But what we’re really looking for is identification. Like Jeff Daniels in “Something Wild,” lying about who he really is but willing to do the right thing when pressed.

And of course there was the documentary work, like Spalding Gray’s “Swimming To Cambodia,” could a guy like Spaldeen even exist today? We’ve got liars like Mike Daisey looking to become famous, but Gray was a neurotic iconoclast who developed his own format and got noticed for it, back when that type intrigued us, back before everybody was self-promoting 24/7.
Which is all to say that Jonathan Demme was a product of a different era. When movies were king. When being a studio head was more important than running a bank. When culture oozed out of Hollywood and we were all addicted.

And Demme never took cheap shots, he always tried to test the limits, no matter what he was doing.

But he was not a party of one but a member of a legion, who believed what what was up on screen could not only change our lives, but society.

And the great thing about being an artist is when done right the work lives on, ready to infect others along the way.

But then there are people like me, who can tell you exactly where I saw “Something Wild” on a weekday night and how it changed my sensibility and my life.

That’s what art is all about.

Jonathan Demme was an artist.

Twitter Results

Are being misjudged.

Tomorrow the short-messaging social network will reveal its numbers and the analysts will gasp, the pundits will swoon, and everybody will say that Twitter needs to be fixed.

But that’s not the truth at all.

By Wall Street standards Twitter’s a diving joke. A company that’s hit a financial wall with no obvious upside.

By cultural standards it’s a juggernaut, far exceeding the impact of Facebook and Snapchat, even Instagram.

How can this be?

You see our nation has gone topsy-turvy, it’s all about the money. It’s ruined the arts and it’s ruining business. If you’re not making a ton of dough and increasing the number every quarter you’re falling behind, out of the conversation. And yes, an entity needs cash flow to survive, but how much? And isn’t impact more important than money, especially when it comes to changing the conversation?

Look at Tesla, anemic by automobile standards, gargantuan regarding impact, it took the electric car off the shelf and put it back into the conversation.

But Tesla’s stock is through the roof, for now anyway, defying all realistic fundamentals. Let’s focus instead on BMW, which has lost the sales crown to Mercedes-Benz. BMW is a juggernaut of innovation. Do you think we’d see all those features in Hondas and Chevys if it weren’t for the bleeding edge developers? Of course not!

Not that automobiles are a perfect analogy, the point being someone has got to lead, someone has to move the conversation forward, and that all happens on Twitter. While Facebook is trying to find out how to stop people killing others on live video, everybody in the news business is addicted to their Twitter feed, they want to know what is happening, right now. And the reporters go there for info and the outlets post their latest findings and unlike Facebook or Google it’s not curated by an algorithm but the users themselves. You follow who you want to, and when they prove to be worthless, inane, boring or all three, you mute them and move on.

And it turns out most people have no powers of analysis and they can’t figure out how to work anything mildly complicated and they just want to be seen as important, and Twitter fails on all those accounts. For years we heard about people tweeting their every move. If you think this is how Twitter still works, you’re probably e-mailing your friends jokes on AOL. Twitter has moved on. The looky-loos have long departed. The self-righteous wannabes tweeting over a hundred thousand times are living in their own tiny silos, in their own echo chambers. That’s one of the great things about Twitter, when you see somebody hating on you you can check them out and in almost all cases they have almost no followers and no one sees the hate, so you can relax. This is not the network television of yore, this is one jerk with a megaphone in the middle of the prairie with no impact.

So you’ve got experts in every field tweeting about their findings, what interests them.

When breaking news occurs a hive emerges with tons of data. Is it sometimes wrong? Of course! But so is mainstream news! And if you can’t ferret between the true and false, if you can’t adjust on the fly, you don’t deserve to be on Twitter, you need remedial reading classes.

And this is where the President makes his pronouncements.

It’s all happening on Twitter.

But we’ve got to listen to the people who ruined this country, the financial sector, hate on the company.

Can it be improved? Sure! Does it need to be a standalone entity? Absolutely not. But one thing’s for sure, we need a source for real time news, and so far no one else is coming close to Twitter.

So celebrate the company that is driving the zeitgeist, where all stories get started, where those addicted to news live. Newspapers come second. TV is a comparative joke. And everybody worth their salt in either medium is right there on Twitter, whether it be Rachel Maddow or Margaret Sullivan.

If you don’t care, if you don’t want to play, that’s fine.

The fact that more people would rather revisit high school, post cat videos and doctor images that make them look amazing is irrelevant. It’s like looking to the Kardashian sisters to push the cultural envelope as opposed to Gustavo Dudamel.

We want people to make us think. We want to know where it’s all going and what it all means.

And there’s no better place to do this than on Twitter.

Financial metrics be damned!

The Idiot

“The Idiot”

Do you ever feel like you don’t fit in, that you didn’t get the memo, didn’t realize there was a manual, that everybody else is comfortable in their own skin and knows how to get along?

I do. I always feel this way. Maybe that’s why I’m addicted to art.

I like people. I like to hang, exchange ideas, but I’m always self-conscious, unsure whether to talk or not. Then there are the boring sots who won’t shut up, I don’t know how to make them stop, I endure their prattle, they believe I’m their best friend. And then, now and again, I’m inspired, feeling my oats, telling a tale that could go on forever, with tangents, believing my audience is entranced before I ultimately become doubtful and shut up. I used to talk quite a lot, but I don’t think it worked for me. Somehow I alienated people, going on about what I was excited about, having opinions. So now I’m quiet. But I’m not happy about it.

Now when I was growing up we were all apart. There was no internet, long distance phone calls were expensive. You lived in a community where everybody had your number and this drove me crazy, because they formulated an opinion about you and it stuck, forever, until you moved to a new place. Somehow they were all on a path. Maybe not to anywhere exciting, the law firm, or their daddy’s business, but they were resigned to it, didn’t complain about it at all, me, I wanted to get out, I felt there was something bigger out there, more exciting. And there is. But too often I still feel uncomfortable, like I don’t belong, I don’t know how to behave, what to do.

And I know, I know, you tell me everybody feels this way, but I’m not so sure. My father was not a member of the group, although my mother was the straw that stirred the drink, to this day, she’s the center of activity, maybe there’s just not room for me, or I’m playing the role of my father, that’s what’s scary, the older you get you realize you’re just like your parents, no matter how hard you try not to be.

I used to love to go to the movies alone, back when that was a thing. Sit there in the darkness and bond with what was on screen.

And the records… Especially when we hit the FM era and it was no longer about ditties, but opuses. Have you ever listened to a Moody Blues album? The band is denigrated, they belong in the R&RHOF ages ago, but when you listen to their albums you get taken away. Start with “Days Of Future Passed,” yup, the one with “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights In White Satin,” but however great those cuts are, and they truly are, it’s what surrounds them that makes the album such a great listening experience. Like a classical village where the players understand you.

Kinda like a Yes LP. Sure, they had a hit with “Roundabout” but when you were listening you felt like you were in a cave, or in one of the cover paintings, alone with the sound, it was so magical. Which is why I liked going to the concerts, to bond with the acts, sure I wanted to hear the hits, but even more the album cuts. And my concertgoing is not littered with hangout experiences, going in a group, meeting new people, it was mostly a solo endeavor, where I connected with the acts.

And I could quote legions more acts.

But one thing’s for sure, that’s not what artists are selling anymore, that’s not how our society works. Now it’s all about the team, your network of friends, helping each other out, the rugged individual, the outsider marching to his own drumbeat, is nowhere to be found. So when I glom on to something that rings my bell, speaks to me, I can’t put it down.

Kinda like “The Sopranos” the very first year, when there was no hype and no general acceptance. It was the nuances that put the show over the top. How Meadow had her parents twisted around her little finger, suggested they take away her gasoline credit card as punishment, and then bragging to her friend on the phone how her ‘rents were clueless.

Every Sunday I comb the “New York Times” Book Review section looking for things to buy. And I always do it electronically, I don’t want to go to the store, where the help wants to be your best friend, I’m looking for a more private experience. And I read the “Wall Street Journal” book section too, but it’s mostly non-fiction, I don’t care about that, I don’t want to know about what once was, I want to be taken away to a new land, where it’s only me and the author.

And I don’t know why I downloaded the sample chapter of “The Idiot,” but when I opened it up and read the first few pages, I knew this was for me, I bought it.

Selin goes to Harvard, her lineage is Turkish, she falls for Ivan, a Hungarian, but she just can’t get it right, she doesn’t know how to act with a man. She’s got the urge, but none of the chops. She’s obsessed with him despite his having a girlfriend, she believes they share something special, when she doesn’t.

And she can’t stop pursuing him, but mostly in her mind.

Do you know what it’s like to be obsessed but unable to call? Because you don’t know what to say, because you’re fearful they’re gonna laugh in your face?

This is not the story of a dropout who conquers Silicon Valley.

This is not the story of someone who graduates at the top of his class and dominates Wall Street.

This is the story of a smart person who worked hard to get into a good college and realizes other than book learning, they know nothing.

That’s the weird thing about elite institutions, the grinds who get in are often compromised, they’re looking to spread their wings, some do, some fall flat on their face.

So I’m not gonna tell you any more plot. I don’t want to ruin it.

And I will say the book has so many literary references you feel inadequate unless you have a Ph.D., and what bugs me about books is they’re all sponsored by foundations, what I like about music and movies, TV too, is they live and die on their appeal. Either you dedicate your life trying to make it happen or you get out. You succeed or you don’t. Your movie hits or your record climbs the chart or you find another path. Not that overnight success is rampant, it’s just that you get signals, that you’re on the right course.

Maybe you call that capitalism. And I don’t want to get into a political discussion of economics, but when something rings my bell I want everybody to know, so it can be given a chance, so these artists can give up their day jobs and focus on their work, because being an artist is a full-time job.

Most people hate their jobs, they live for the moment when they can turn on the TV or play some music and now…

Now this is getting too complicated, too dense, when really I wanted to capture the concept of alienation, how I feel it and when I see it expressed in art I resonate.

I resonated with “The Idiot.”

“In high school I had been full of opinions, but high school had been like prison, with constant opposition and obstacles. Once the obstacles were gone, meaning seemed to vanish.”

“Human beings, all of us, hate to take risks. We all want to hide.”

Yup, all the wankers telling us to just jump off the cliff like them, quit our jobs, go our own way, they don’t understand we’re not like them, WE CAN’T!”

“I’m hearing a lot of contradictory emotions from you. It seems to me that your sense of other people’s awfulness might be compensating for your own sense of inferiority and fear of rejection.”

This stopped me in my tracks. Why do we behave the way we do? Who’s gonna explain it? Certainly not the winners who say to put your head down and keep marching, what ever happened to the life of contemplation?

“At a table near the door, two students were slumped over their books, either asleep or murdered.”

There’s a sense of humor, a turn of the phrase, the protagonist is her own best audience, that’s what happens when you grow up alone, in your head, you create a whole way of seeing the world that no one else comprehends, even though you’re eager to share it.

“Did anyone ever get as much of anything as they wanted?”

“I was troubled by the Beatles, by the contradiction between their jaunty, harmoniously innocent warbling, and the calculating worldview that seemed to underlie it.”

Bingo, it’s the darkness that made the Beatles superstars.

“Beautiful people lived in a different world, had different relations with people. From the beginning they were raised for love.”

If you know any beautiful people you know this. And looks matter. But being yourself leads to its own rewards.

“But, to me, nineteen still felt old and somehow alien to who I was. It occurred to me that it might take more than a year – maybe as many as seven years – to learn to feel nineteen.”

I’ve never felt my age, have you?

“Almost everything that was interesting or meaningful in my story was, in her story (her mother’s), a pointless hazard or annoyance. This was even more true with my aunts. They didn’t take anything I did seriously; it was all some trivial, mildly annoying side activity that I insisted on for some reason, having nothing to do with real life.”

Did your parents understand your need to follow the music, to throw away everything else in pursuit of the sound?

I rest my case.