Near the end of Joni Mitchell’s Miles of Aisles live album, she becomes tired of the crowd calling out requests for her greatest hits and responds, somewhat passive-aggressively, with “Nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint a Starry Night again, man!’ You know? He painted it and that was it.” (More on that comment, and its ramifications, here.) I was just two years old at the time, and on the wrong coast besides, but if I could get in a time machine and travel back to that night I would yell back, “YEAH, AND HE ALSO JUST GOT PAID ONCE FOR PAINTING IT, SO QUIT YOUR BITCHING!”
When my son is old enough to truly comprehend the fine distinctions involved, I think that I’m going to spend a lot of time stressing to him that different jobs don’t just pay different amounts of money — they also pay in different ways. Consider, if you will, the vast majority of pop songs. The writer gets paid as long as people buy the song. The rights holders to the song also get paid as long as it’s selling. That’s really the best way to get paid. The original headliner can probably get paid to perform the song as long as it’s popular; that’s not quite as good as getting paid for doing nothing but it still offers the prospect of continued employment. Last and least are the studio musicians who took a one-time payment for performing on the studio track and signed over the rest of their rights.
Studio musicians tend to stay poor and die broke, no matter how good they are, because they don’t own the rights to what they do. As fate would have it, I’m kind of a studio musician when it comes to autowriting. I don’t own a magazine, I don’t own a website, and I don’t retain rights to much of what I write. Like Van Gogh, I deliver the product, I take the money, I walk away, and I never have to — or get to, depending on your perspective — do it again. I write 350,000 words a year— that’s a new War and Peace every nineteen months — and I only get paid once for each one of those words.
Not that I’m complaining, mind you. It’s a privilege and an honor to have the editors, and the audience, that I have. Joni Mitchell might have considered her fans to be a distraction or even a hassle, but I cannot bring myself to feel that way. I spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to serve that audience. Which brings me to the comment by dal20402 above.
I suspect that Joni Mitchell would have liked having “Dal” as a listener, because he wants to hear something new. Were Dal sitting in the audience for “Miles Of Aisles”, he might have been completely hip to the new stuff. He might have attended Joni’s gigs with Jaco and Pat Metheny, nodding with approval while the people all around him sat absolutely dumbstruck. He’s the kind of guy who would have approved of John Mayer’s trio tour, or the electric Dylan.
There are a lot of readers like Dal out there, people who would like to see me come up with something genuinely new and different four times a week. They would give me leeway to write challenging or “problematic” articles. The farther I stray from genre and type, the happier they will be. I treasure readers like this.
The problem is that there are also plenty of readers who are perfectly at ease with Checklist Jack and are at least mildly entertained by him, er, me. They’re not looking for me to do anything experimental or unusual. I know how they feel, because that’s how I felt about the novels of Iain M. Banks. I wanted him to keep digging in the furrow plowed by the early Culture novels. I’m far from alone in this; every time Banks wandered away from the Culture his sales suffered.
As you might expect, this sort of thing happens to novelists all the time. Herman Melville was known to his generation as the author of two travelogues, Omoo and Typee; the ambitious and sometimes humorous mega-novel that succeeded it, something about a whaling expedition gone wrong, drove him out of the spotlight and all the way into bankruptcy. Imagine being a middle-aged mom, picking up the next Nicholas Sparks novel at the grocery store only to be confronted with a tale of a crippled man killing a hundred sailors as he worships the devil and performs mystic rituals in the bloodthirsty pursuit of an injured animal; that’s how Melville’s readers felt when they started reading Moby-Dick.
There’s a perception out there, one that has gained tremendous additional currency in the modern “hipster” era, that the only “real” fans of an artist are the ones who embrace his most challenging and difficult (sometimes unpleasant) work. Ask any “true” fan of a band like Rush or Metallica for advice on that band’s best work, and you’ll get a hugely obscure recommendation designed to showcase that person’s status as a member of the cognoscenti. If I died tomorrow and somehow gained a major reputation after my death, you’d get all sorts of young people telling you that my “Performance Car Of The Year” articles were mass-market crap and that the “real Baruth” is the person who wrote The Car Girls.
Luckily for me, I’m still alive and still cranking out work. Some of it is “Checklist Jack” in one form or another. Some of it is ambitious, self-consciously artistic, overwhelmingly sentimental, obviously autistic. Some of it is good, some of it is bad. I’m grateful for the people who expect, and will read, “Checklist Jack”. I’m grateful for the people who are willing to read something else entirely. In a perfect world, I would have had John Updike’s career: college connections leading to an early stint at a major magazine and a series of precocious early novels that laid the foundation for seven-figure commercial success. In this world, I worked construction-site cleanup, got expelled from schools, spent a miserable decade digging myself out of the decisions I’d made in the decade previous to that, then followed the most crooked path imaginable to the cover page of America’s finest car magazine. You know what? I’ll take it. I owe a lot of my current success to Checklist Jack. He’s not going away. But he doesn’t work alone, so be patient with me and I’ll try to make it worth your while.