“Give you a hundred bucks if you can name the artist and the tune — or the artist and the album.” My dinner companion, Hagerty Drivers Club Magazine impresario Joe DeMatio, almost got it, but not quite. We were at Weber’s Inn, the old-standard restaurant in Ann Arbor that prior to the recent unpleasantness was known for featuring live music of some sort six nights a week. Now they’re spinning records instead of lighting up the bandstand, which is better than nothing. Joe knew it was a Miles Davis tune, but he didn’t know that it was “I Could Write A Book” from Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet. A product of two sessions at Rudy Van Gelder’s home studio, Relaxin’ and its three companion albums have become an indispensable part of the American jazz landscape over the past sixty years.
In the years to come, Miles would devote considerable time to using the studio as an instrument in and of itself, as seen in Bitches Brew — but these eight sides were quick and dirty efforts meant to fulfill his obligations to his old label (Prestige) so he could start working with his new label (Columbia, where he would record Kind Of Blue). Many of the tunes are first takes; there is no evidence for any of them being the product of more than three attempts. In the song above, “If I Were A Bell,” you can put on your headphones and hear John Coltrane rushing up to the microphone for his solo, realizing a bit too late that he was too far away for the sound he and the producer wanted. If that happened while my son and I were recording a fifty-nine-second song snippet for Instagram, we’d start over — but Miles went ahead and committed that take to vinyl, presumably so he could get the other three dozen tunes on his list done without having to stick around for a third day.
Relaxin’ isn’t perfect. Given the conditions — four men crowded into a home studio, playing single-take music into a single microphone, without a single Auto-Tune workstation in sight — it would be impossible for that to be the case. Yet it’s right. It’s just done right. All of the musicians turned in competent performances. Rudy Van Gelder recorded it with his usual fidelity and attention to detail. So even if you don’t like all the tunes, you cannot say that any of them represents a catastrophe along the lines of Courtney Love’s individual guitar and vocal mixes. There is a minimum standard of talent, due care, and professionalism being met here. This is an idea that has been very much on my mind as of late, for reasons I’ll explain.
As many of you know, I’m a former freelance writer turned insurance-industry management-drone-and-itinerant-columnist. This year marks three decades for me of writing for publication in the cycling, automotive, and ridiculous-timepiece fields. I gave up on trying to estimate my total work output years ago. The “Avoidable
Content Contact” columns alone… there have been more than two hundred of them, averaging more than 1,500 words, so that’s somewhere between Ulysses and Infinite Jest. I cannot come up with any rough estimate of my lifetime paid output that is beneath two million words.
Not all of it has been great or even good. Virtually all of it has been right, in the sense that Relaxin’ is right. I have spent thirty years turning in prose that is spelled correctly, arranged in logical and comprehensible fashion, and generally free of any major mistakes in grammar beyond my own characteristic affinity for Tom-Wolfe-style extended-and-agitated sentences. (Sam Smith, were he here, would no doubt want you to know that he has no patience with my “British which”, often employed in the stead of “that” by default. This habit, which I formed by long perusal of English writers as a student, is the sort of minor detail which gives me individuality as a prose stylist, and which I am loath to abandon, regardless of what Sam thinks. Also, he is frequently enraged by my affinity for italics.) If you read something I have written, you might think it is too long, you might disagree with the central premise, or you might find it less than enjoyable — but rarely would any person of at least average intelligence be able to say that I am simply not making sense, or that I am breaking significant rules of the English language.
If only I could say the same about the writing I encounter in my day job. After starting in senior editorial positions at TTAC and… well, let’s just talk about TTAC… I took a few days to read a representative sample of work from each of our existing freelance contributors. I “stack ranked” those authors by the quality of their submitted work, splitting them into tertiles. Then I quietly terminated our relationship with the bottom tertile, thanking them for their time and gently suggesting that we would no longer be accepting their submissions. In fairness, it should be mentioned that at least one of these writers remembers this process very differently, and frequently recounts his version of events on Twitter, whether or not anyone else asks him to do so.
It would gratify and amuse me to pretend that I cut ties with those writers due to my princess-and-the-pea intolerance of certain phrase or styling habits, but the truth is far more depressing: some of these people, as Dryden wrote of an opponent, never deviate into sense. I would finish two thousand of their words having little to no idea of the actual subject involved. Car reviews without any driving impressions, despite the fact that the writer had been flown first class to Europe for the express purpose of driving said car. “Historical” pieces with nothing but random conjecture and sentences beginning with “Everybody knows…” Rarely was it possible to discern any sort of narrative thread in the work of the lower tertile. Most of the time, their pieces served little purpose other than to stir memories in the reader’s mind of older, better-organized articles.
Some of these writers were quite well-regarded in our little industry. Some had written books, although I shudder to imagine what they are like to read. Many of them managed to earn a living wage through their work, although still more of them were secretly supported by spouses or parents. Yet they never deviated into sense. They often managed the seemingly opposed tricks of turning straight-reporting articles into personal anecdotes and then turning personal-anecdote articles into bewildering assemblages of misremembered pop culture. After leaving my employ, they often produced the most incomprehensible efforts elsewhere. One of them recently managed to jumble-up a genre previously thought to be beyond jumbling, namely the transcribed interview, by removing some, but not all, of the verbal tics exhibited by the person being interviewed. (A tip for any young writers just breaking into the business: Virtually everyone will say “Uh” and “Um” and “Hmm” and similar things during an off-the-cuff interview. Leaving them in, as the news media likes to do with President Trump, is usually considered evidence of authorial animus towards the subject. Leaving some of them in, while excising others, is evidence of… I haven’t a clue, actually, and neither does anyone else.)
In short, these are bad writers. Not good writers having a bad day, not natural talents in need of a little polishing. Just bad writers. The same way I’m a bad musician. All the problems these writers exhibit have an analogue of some sorts in my various bashing-about of guitars and whatnot. The difference is that I readily acknowledge my shortcomings as a musician. My bad writers had, and have, no such self-awareness. They quite like their own work. It makes sense to them, the same way that I can make up a little song while I’m riding a motorcycle and have it strike me as absolutely first-rate. Should I record these songs via helmet microphone and expect $500 per song? I think not.
This general incompetence would matter less, it would bother me less, were I supplied with an adequate number of good writers, but sadly this is not the case. There are perhaps ten people working in the business who can construct an article of any length without “losing the plot”, as the English say, halfway through. Our society is overflowing with brilliant guitarists, astounding athletes, physically perfect human beings of surpassing beauty. What we need is a few more decent writers. Just enough to fill in the gaps as society slides along the greased tracks downward into orgy-porgy and Centrifugal Bumblepuppy. If you know someone who fits this description, I would like to meet him or her. I have work for such a person, paid at top rates and without hesitation, for virtually anything they are willing to write. I don’t even need to see pitches ahead of time; I’ll take first-rate pieces without any advance notice. The desired subject? It should have something to do with cars. Other than that? Surprise me. As Miles says to Prestige Records founder Bob Weinstock in the opening of “If I Were A Bell”… “I’ll play it and tell you what it is later.” And I’ll give you way more than a hundred bucks for it.
For Hagerty, I attempted to competently relate the story of two fellows on the open road.