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Will vs. Bill

Begin not with what you can do but with what you cannot do, and what you cannot do alone.

In several interviews Will Oldham writes movingly of friendship. He did not, he recalls, bring a big group of musicians together in order to record Ease on Down the Road; the album happened when friends came together. Likewise he does not engage in his collaborations in order to produce a particular piece of music, but to open himself to chance, to see what will happen. He prefers audiences who are not familiar with his work, and above all those who do not seek a personal relationship with him. Once again, this allows something unexpected to occur. It is the trajectory of the songs that are important for Will Oldham; they are linked to personae, to collaborations, to events.

W. O. describes his relationship with one of his heteronyms in terms of friendship:

There was [a period of] two or three months where I was playing in Sp’ain, and then I was playing with the Boxhead Ensemble in Eu’rope, and then I went to Aus’tralia. In that period of time, I had to figure out ev’rything that was negative about the approach, and then try to erase the burden aspect of ev’rything. And in order to that I need a friend, and that was who Bonny Billy was.

The suggestion here is that one needs to invent personas, and to distinguish between these personae and the person you are at a particular point. Somewhere, Will Oldham claims that Beck was spoilt by his earlier success, that, having achieved pop star status with ‘Loser’, he felt compelled to seek out new ways of recording in order to maintain the innovatory edge of ‘Beck’, the persona his success had created for him. ‘Beck’ becomes the straightjacket of a man who has to conform to a certain image; the changes in music style that one finds across his albums, Will Oldham suggests, will always fail to allow him to be anyone but this persona.

Here is Will Oldham explaining why he has changed alias so many times:

The main reason is because it seems like, at the v’ery least, each record, if not each song, has a trajectory of its own. It just seemed better to identify that, rather than think in terms of say, a group like the Rolling Stones, where it seems like the band is the trajectory and it’s easy to go from beginning to end.

Particularly interesting is the way Will Oldham contrasts himself to Smog’s Bill Callahan. Recalling the tour he shared with him, he writes:

With Bill there’s a satisfaction and a desire to be solitary at this moment, which is something that, you know, is not ideal – for me it opposes being alive and it’s a totally rebel-ish idea. I like using music to do things to be with people, to interact. On ev’ry level.

It seems Callahan is not open enough, that he is rebelling from a kind of social interaction Will Oldham thinks is necessary for life. He has fallen short of life by falling short of friendship.

But does Bill Callahan’s solitariness exhibit the movement of friendship in another sense? I remember a discussion I enjoyed a few months ago at a pub. We were drinking, a few of us, and one of us said that friendship was absolutely crucial and that it was our relationships to our friends that allowed us to think and write. I surprised myself by my vehemence in rejecting this claim, because it struck me that my essays, such as they are, were the product of years working alone in a room.

On reflection, I was reminded of Bataille’s retreat to the countryside after a number of years being passionately involved in the attempt to form various groups. In one book, he expresses regret about those attempts: ‘I become irritated when I think of the time of “activity” which I spent – during the last years of peacetime – in forcing myself to reach my fellow beings’. But the next sentence reads as follows: ‘I had to pay this price. Ecstasy itself is empty when envisaged as a private exercise, only mattering for a single individual’.

As Blanchot emphasises, the texts grouped under the general heading, The Atheological Summa, are not, as it might appear, a haphazard compendium of personal confessions, fragmentary poems, notes from unrealised projects and other disparate material. They achieve a unity by and through the movement that attests to the experience that disrupts the supposed unity of the narrating ‘I’. The events that Bataille relates do not constitute an autobiography, but interrupt the movement of auto-affection itself. As Blanchot comments, Bataille’s work is not just the story of certain extraordinary encounters, but is itself act of friendship. In Blanchot’s words, it is a ‘friendship for the unknown [one] without friends’ [amitié pour l’inconnu sans amis]’.

What does Will Oldham understand by the word friendship? Firstly, it refers to his relationship to those musicians with whom he collaborates, secondly, to his relationship for his audience, insofar as they are unknown, thirdly, for his relationship to his heteronyms, insofar as they allow him to lighten the burden, fourthly and this is speculative, for the trajectory of his songs, EPs and albums, which leads him to say at one point that he wishes CDs were grouped by title in the record shop rather than by the artist’s name and fifthly, and this is still more speculative, to a relationship to something unknown in ourselves and in the relationships between us. Here is what he says:

I know that ev’ryone, or I would imagine that most people, have some pretty unbalanced or fucked-up aspects’; ‘People feel that there is not a forum for communicating a lot of those things and they get the feeling that things are regular and then that things inside of themselves are irregular. Sometimes it’s suspicious. I have no idea of what’s regular and what’s irregular that goes on inside of myself, for example’.

Above all, the great albums of Smog, like the albums of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Palace Songs and Will Oldham, exhibit a friendship for the unknown. It was this friendship, I feel, that allowed me to write alone. Was I alone? I listened to The Doctor Came at Dawn over and over again. The vanishing point unto which it gave laid claim to me in the same way that I, in writing, was bound in friendship to the future.

What did I learn? Begin not with what you can do but with what you cannot do, and what you cannot do alone.

[1. This is a repost. 2. Typepad has mangled this post necessitating the use of inverted commas in the middle of words and the occasional abbreviation of Will Oldham's name. Apologies.]

June 01, 2005 in Will Oldham | Permalink