The Critics Respond, Part Forty-Two

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.

42 Replies to “The Critics Respond, Part Forty-Two”

  1. Bark M

    Small point of pedantic clarification: Van Gogh actually painted a couple of versions of Starry Night, and he didn’t get paid for either one.

    H+K,
    Brother Bark

  2. dal20402

    You’ve got me pretty much figured out. I do like it when artists reach for the new and challenge themselves. In my world, classical music, it means I’m a huge fan of late Beethoven and late Shostakovich.

    That said, my comment was at least partly supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the comments on your New Beetle review some time back.

  3. Jeff Zekas

    Jack, your comments reminded me of Jack London: he was a working writer, a “hack” who made money publishing in penny magazines, yet his work was amazing. Luckily, London had his stories compiled into books, so we may now enjoy his wonderful stories.

  4. Domestic Hearse

    Oh, man. I haven’t watched my Shadows and Light DVD for awhile now. Putting that on when I get home tonight. Thanks, Checklist Jack.

    Obscure musical line-up few have ever heard of but is absolutely brilliant: check

    Bonus musical reference with Mayer Trio call out: double check

    Seriously, I think if I were to go down your CD and album collection, it’d be: got it, got it, got it, want it, got it, got it, want it…

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Very possibly!

      Checklist Jack wants to remind you to watch Jaco during “In France They Kiss On Main Street”. No replacement for him, dead or alive…

  5. Ronnie Schreiber

    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.

    The Grateful Dead’s best work? In the studio American Beauty & Workingman’s Dead. Live? The period from 1971 to 1976, before Jerry decided to become a junkie.The cognoscenti in me, however, wishes the Dead organization would release a collection of nothing but songs that Pigpen fronted. No, I didn’t go hit the bathroom during drums/space.

    • hank chinaski

      Guilty as charged. When they played ‘Lakeside Park’ at R40, ass was kicked.
      If they booked a small venue, set an oddball playlist with none of their standards, and charged $500 a seat, it would sell out, handily. We’re sick that way.

      Chefs do checklists too. It keeps the lights on. Sit down with a good one who’s doing it for fun, though and you’re in for a treat.

  6. Zykotec

    As a somewhat ‘new’ Metallica fan ( I was only 3 years old when they released their first album) it does annoy me a bit when the ‘true’ fans slam all the work they did under and after Bob Rock.

    Unlike most other really hugely popular bands they have actually experimented and tried new things (or even older things)
    Yes, their 2nd 3rd and 4th albums certainly contained some masterpieces, and despite sometimes being incredibly heavy ‘the black album’ definitely tried harder to reach the masses, but once they got rich and famous they didn’t just start playing the same songs over and over like some Australian or British bands have done, they actually tried something different, and went their own way. And they learned a lot from it, so even if their last albums are much closer to their first in style, they have added layers and styles and ‘stuff’ that makes it even better.

    And despite gaining a massive reputation for being sellouts and commercial, they have never really done the ‘hit single every 6th week’-thing that normal pop artists do. They actually tour and meet their fans , and take a whole 7 years to write a frikkin album. They are (purely objectively speaking) ‘the greatest (rock) band ever’.
    But they have also played ‘fade to black’ and ‘one’ roughly 60 million times by now.
    They occassionally suck really bad live. They sometimes make songs that are so awful that it hurts. Rumors even say they did something with Lou Reed (but some refuse to acknowledge it) They played ‘you really got me now’ with Ray Davies, and sounded exactly like the parody/tribute band ‘Beatallica’.

    As someone who tries to be kinda artistic and draw and photoshop cars from time to time, it’s really hard to try to be popular and relevant, and still do ‘your own thing’ Near impossible to be honest. And it’s even harder when someone younger with better work ethics get inspired by your work and does it even better. And it’s ‘even more harderer’ when you get better at the technical stuff and start producing proper quality work, but you ‘lost the spark’ (according to the fans at least) that got you into the art in the first place. There are only two ways to go on from that. You can either try to redo your old stuff with the new things you’ve learned or try new things, to stretch your comfort zone, and to piss off at least half of your older fans. You can end up a new George Lucas or a new Brian Wilson.

    I didnt really make a point, because I agree with both ways of doing things. It’s all depending on if you want to make money now, or to be remembered after you’re dead. A lot of famous artists died poor.
    I make my daily bread wrapping ship parts in boxes, and allthough these can be pretty expensive parts that ship owners pay ridiculous amount to receive immediately I’d much prefer that someone remembers that I once drew a really cool dragon on a steampunk motorbike, or that I once photoshopped a pretty rad J-swapped Integra, or made a concept sketch of a Dodge Rampage inspired Honda HR-V compact truck.

  7. Yamahog

    Come as you are, Jack.

    I really enjoy hearing first hand accounts of what people own. And I think you do a good job at making it interesting as an ongoing narrative – this is what’s up with DG’s fiesta, after X miles here are my thoughts on the Accord. Your comments about the ZX-14 and CB1100 are always insightful. Your term ‘Yomato Class’ sports bikes has entered my vocabulary (I love big torque 4 cylinder bikes!). Because it helps me understand your perspective as a rider. I know what a CB1100 / Accord V6 is about, I read your opinions on the same thing, and now there’s a good basis for me to understand what you’re talking about and where you’re coming from.

    For instance,

    I’d accuse you of liking effortless torque and long powerbands (with brakes to match), caring a lot about predictability and consistency, and enjoying suspensions that balance trade-offs well regardless of whether they cut towards a cloud (a la Continential) or a race car.

    And from my impressions about Bark – he seems to enjoy the advantages of light weight, linear powerbands, and ‘stiff’ / ‘taut’ calibrations.

    It makes sense you guys see eye to eye on something like the Lotus Evora (correct me if I’m wrong) but Bark doesn’t strike me as a guy who’d get a V6 FWD midsizer (and not just because an AWD turbo 4 Fusion is available).

    It’s really useful to know this because I read the Baruth brother’s impressions and can know whether or not I should check out what you’re reviewing. I know that I should be interested in a deal on an i8 next recession thanks to you and I know that I’d be disappointed in a Focus RS or RX-8 because of Bark’s notes (though I know that I should consider a Taurus because of Bark even though he disliked it).

    Actually, I started following you based on your story of tracking the Camry. It was a really level headed, fair assessment of the Camry on a track – it resonated with me because you were truthful. There’s a lot of collective hallucination in the auto industry and acknowledging the reality that the Camry is sincerely worthy of track time and can be rewarding to drive/operate is something that most car reviewers wouldn’t have put into print.

    Checklist, experimental, whatever – if you think it’s has enough merit to put your name next to it, I’ll check it out with an open mind.

  8. Rick T.

    “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.”

    Yep. And don’t forget about performance and use royalties. That’s why you don’t recognize 99.9% of the people down here in Nashville driving the Bentleys.

    On a related note, the life and work of Francis Preston who built BMI Nashville into a powerhouse should be better known:

    https://www.bmi.com/special/frances_preston

    I bought a number of books from her library at the estate sale several years ago, including a favorite of mine ‘Three Chords and the Truth: Hope, Heartbreak, and Changing Fortunes in Nashville.’

  9. Kevin Jaeger

    I’m happy to read the Checklist Jack articles. They’re certainly entertaining on their own and there’s a place for a little light entertainment in auto writing.

    But man cannot live on a diet of Checklist Jack alone. All things in moderation.

  10. silentsod

    How can you not love the Algebraist by Banks? That’s not a Culture novel (my first was Consider Phlebas), but I thought it was better than quite a few of the Culture setting books.

    • silentsod

      Note that I should not have jumped to the conclusion that you don’t, in fact, hold in high regards any of the non-Culture Banks novels. Beer, however, disagrees.

  11. Ken

    Jack, finishing writing that novel already, publish it and watch the cash register continually ring.

    Also, more book suggestions.

    • Ronnie Schreiber

      There’s no such thing as an incel, just guys who are too cheap to pay for it (or otherwise not willing to meet some woman’s terms – all women have terms).

      I mean seriously? Is any rational man who isn’t gay going to spend a life of celibacy over $100 (religious devotees excepted)? They’d rather mope around saying, “Oh, woe is me, I’m still a virgin,” than pony of the cash for some jellyroll. That’s not just nebbishy, it’s industrial strength stupid.

      Even if you don’t want to pay for it, the fact that I’m a grandfather should encourage any male who’s worried about never dipping their wick. I’m short, chubby, opinionated, not afraid to be a non-conformist, and I say what I think. My old shrink said I gave off a vibe that repels (that was the word he used) women. If I could find a woman (and my ex was not unattractive) just about any man can.

      • Nickoo

        >just guys who are too cheap to pay for it

        I have no moral problem with men paying for it, as long as the woman isn’t being coerced in some way, but the “land of the free” doesn’t feel the same way. In the US men who can’t get it other than paying for it have two choices, risk breaking the law and being publicly shamed, or going outside the US to pay for it, and possibly tagged as a sex tourist in the file that the feds keep on you.

        • arbuckle

          “And possibly tagged as a sex tourist in the file that the feds keep on you.”

          Hypothetically, the US feds only care about that if the situation involves minors, so stay out of the countries known for that sort of thing and you’re golden. No one cares what you do with a 25 year old in Hungary or France.

          Plus there are some fully legal brothels in Nevada (they are pricey but not Ferrari expensive) and other in-nation arrangements available. Also hypothetically.

          You certainly should not be hitting up Backpage or the street corner. That is illegal and sad.

  12. VoGo

    I got stuck on the description: “America’s finest car magazine.” I’m pretty sure you can hang your hat on more important achievements, Jack.

  13. Rob

    I have no issue with Checklist Jack, in the same way I will read and enjoy Checklist Elmore Leonard or Checklist David Mitchell. I enjoy a Checklist Heineken from time to time as well, as opposed to the latest guava-infused thrice-hopped American Pale Ale from the Brooklyn Beardo Beering Brotherhood or whatevs.

  14. TJ

    Note, the ease of putting out a short comment, criticizing an author, versus the immense difficulty of putting your persona into the ether, in a series of well-crafted articles. What the author does is harrowing, what the critic does is brutal. Which sort of person do you want to be, the bold, or the brutish. It seems Jack and Dal20402 have made their respective choices.

  15. MrGreenMan

    It’s “Hold Your Fire”, with all those awful 80s synthesizers. That’s true Rush.

    • Eric H

      There’s some good stuff on Hold Your Fire, but I think Clockwork Angles is their best work.

      Hey Jack, wish us luck, the Flying Lumberjacks VW Fox is going racing this weekend!
      We did an inventory of original, unmodified Fox parts still on it and this is it:
      Chassis, front subframe, brake booster & master cylinder, fuel tank & pumps, tie rods, and rear swing arm. Everything else is either custom or highly modified.
      We’re looking for sub 2:04 at the Ridge this year after hitting 2:04 with three of four drivers last year.

      I think we’re officially nuts/morons.

  16. TAFKADG

    Jack….. You’re too hard on yourself.

    Speaking as someone who’s been reading your purple prose on The Internet since the turn of the Millennium, you’ve come a long way, baby.

    Now, I reckon I’d better check out “The Car Girls”.

  17. TAFKADG

    Credit where it’s due, The Car Girls was pretty great.

    However, the true cognoscenti among us know that the “real Baruth” is the person who used to troll the holy hell out of girlypants.

    “I already have a lawyer. He’s a Caucasian, and his name is H. Ross McBallswab.”

  18. DirtRoads

    Dear Jack,

    Write. That. Fucking. Book.

    Not a book about fucking; you know what I mean. I’ll buy a copy for my mother, even.

    Cheers. Keep on truckin’

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