Close readers of this blog will recall the moment when ER’s Peter Benton, standing by an open grave, began singing The Greatest Love of All—a song made famous by Whitney Houston but originally and, in my opinion, more successfully recorded by the inestimable George Benson, who is, if you think about it, Peter Benton with a guitar and a ready smile—the same intense focus, the same insistence on perfection, both possessed of tremendous talent springing from lightning-fast minds but made manifest through insanely sensitive hands, not to mention the smoldering, lady-melting good looks—I am now thoroughly convinced of what, at the beginning of this poor, abused paragraph, I had only begun to suspect. These two men are twin sons of different mothers, minted in the same press, forged in the same fire, two arrows—one of surgical steel, the other polished quick-silver—aimed at the same target: greatness.
As I write this, here at my place of work, I can hear an Elvis impersonator performing in the atrium to the delight of my co-workers. Their cheers ring in my ears, despite the headphones I’m wearing. There is a pull to go join the throng, to be a part of it. But there’s a stronger pull here. I turn the volume up; the keyboard swells, the drums drive to a crescendo and that voice—what is it, a baritone?—soars skyward.
It’s not his best song. It has a thick layer of cheese on it—the synthesizer riding under the piano, schmaltzy arrangement. I wouldn’t call it good music—I’d call it great.
And for Benton to stand graveside and, in his moment of need, reach for a song that at some level preaches self-love and defiant self-reliance seems like a stroke of genius. That this took place not in reality, nor even in the heightened reality that is ER, but rather in a dream of mine early one morning, well, this seems to throw the credit to me. In the past, I’ve been disappointed with some of the narrative directions my dreams have taken—some of the choices seem so ill-suited to the concept of dreaming, where, in theory, anything can happen—that I am happy and relieved to see, on the other hand, things sometimes work out in splendid fashion.
However, the reason I brought up this musical tidbit from blogging past was not to take the opportunity to sing the praises of perhaps the foremost practitioner of scatting-along-with-my-guitar-riff jazz in the history of the genre, but rather to point out the wisdom contained in the lyrics, overall, yes, but especially: “I believe the children are our future; teach them well and let them lead the way. “
I have let my children lead the way of late, down to our basement hideaway and back to the unfolding saga of Battlestar Galactica, a show that not so long ago I’d argued to be fundamentally inferior to ER. I was wrong. It’s a great show. In fact, the more I watch of it, the more I come to believe it is, essentially, the same show as ER. Less medicine, more flying around space, but otherwise exactly the same.
For example, here’s a story line that could just as easily have filled out an episode of ER, with some adjustments: We are onboard the Galactica and morale is, frankly, in the toilet. The 40,000-odd souls that escaped annihilation in the Cylon attack on the 12 colonies have been solid on the run for a year. They are through their collective reservoir of adrenaline and are now faced with the truth: This is all there is. All the people they knew back home are dead. No family. No friends. No home. Nothing but this spaceship and a life of running.
So the Chief, a working man who thinks with his hands, decides he’s going to build a spacecraft—design and build a new spacecraft—from scratch. It’s a response that doesn’t seem to address the problem—and that’s the genius of it. It’s all the chief knows—he can sit there and do nothing or he can move forward, so he finds his way forward. Goddamit, I love that kind of man.
Needless to say, there is much scoffing, both behind and in front of the Chief’s back. Design a ship from scratch? Galactica doesn’t have the facilities for that. What about the coms system? What about the navs? Where you gonna get the engines? Plus, what with the chronic crew shortages, all work is volunteer, off-the-clock. No thank you.
So Chief toils alone. He welds and grinds and makes a lot of sparks. And he does this for what seems like a long time but probably amounts to thirty seconds of screen time. Then, as he is struggling to hold a structural beam in place while fitting the bolts, suddenly his burden is lifted. It’s the skeptical dude from scene one who is now putting his shoulder into it. Then Kali joins in. Lt. Gaeda gets on the navigation system. Dualla takes on the communication system. Starbuck picks up a welding torch. It’s a goddamn team, people! And there is nothing on TV or under the sun that can’t be accomplished by a good team.
At this point, the XO walks in and is, frankly, outraged at what he sees: officers exhausting themselves in their off-hours in pursuit of a fantasy. He goes to confront the Chief, who is in the process of brewing moonshine.
“What the frak is this, then?” the XO growls.
“I use it to barter for parts,” the Chief admits.
“You’re wasting your time and you’re damaging my crew. I won’t have it.”
“Sir, the work is all I have,” Chief says. “If I don’t have this, I have nothing.”
“It’ll never fly,” the XO says.
“Maybe it won’t,” Chief replies.
“You don’t even have engines,” the XO retorts.
“I’ll figure something out,” says Chief.
“An old service buddy of mine is Chief on the Monarch,” the XO says, mentioning one of the civilian ships in the fleet. “You might give him a call. Give him my regards.”
As he says this, the XO is fingering a jar of the moonshine. He finally takes it and, impulsively, another, and then walks out.
The engines come through, the ship is framed out and, in a last-minute stroke of genius—“Man, where are we gonna get enough titanium to skin this thing?” “Hey, what about these extra sheets of graphite carbon composite?”—the thing comes together.
Of course, Starbuck is the pilot who undertakes the dangerous test-flight. Of course, Lee Adama is the man who flies on her wing. Out they go into space, Lee tight-jawed, Starbuck whooping and hollering. The strange black ships twitches and spins and threatens to flip out of control—Starbuck wrestles with it, seems to get it in hand, applies some throttle and BOOM, it’s gone.
“Starbuck! Starbuck!” Lee screams into his mic. Nothing.
“Galactica, we have lost contact with Blackbird,” Captain Adama announces, seeking control through protocol. “Repeat, we have lost contact with Blackbird.”
Suddenly, Blackbird floats up into view, a madly grinning Starbuck at the helm.
“Of course you’ve lost contact, silly, “ she says. “It’s a stealth ship.”
You knew it was coming and yet it was great anyway. How like so many of the truly satisfying things in life. Maybe surprise is over-rated. A little spice, a twist, a turn—sure—but the best stories are the familiar ones.
Back on the hangar deck it is a pandemonium of shared accomplishment. The president of the colonies—the frakking president—has come to see the ship and, lo and behold, it is named after her. Good gods, the tears are fairly flowing now. They hand her a bottle of champagne to christen the ship and she makes to break it on the prow in the traditional fashion—something that simply isn’t done with a fragile graphite spacecraft, evidently, because the crew, as one, leap to stop her, but, c’mon, she knows better. She’s just frakking with them. The president of the frakking colonies is pulling their collective leg. This is a wonderful, light moment and if there were any doubt that the Chief has worked his way, and our way, out of the aforementioned funk, it is dispelled when the cork pops and the bubbly flows.
But the moment that really slays me—and I can tell you why, though it will take me a couple thousand words —came just before the President’s little vaudeville act. Starbuck has landed and everyone is gathered around the ship. Chief is grinning ear to ear, drunk with fellow-feeliing, when he hears his name called out. He turns, and there is Commander Adama in all his craggy glory. The Old Man extends his hand and the Chief takes it in a hearty embrace.
“Good job,” Adama says.
And that’s all he says. That’s all he needs to say. What else is there?
Now, I work at a place where, for example, an Elvis impersonator might show up unannounced and put on a concert in the atrium and I could, on my way over there, stop by the Kegerator and pour myself a draft and lounge on the steep terraces of reclaimed lumber that rise up from the center of this modern masterpiece of architecture within which we ply our trade. And were I to do that, I would be in the company of smart, exceptionally talented, funny and kind people—those attributes being spread out among them and not neccessarily grouped together in any one individual. And I appreciate that. I really do.
But I know that, when I finish my stealth fighter and my commander comes down for review, he’s more likely to say something like:
“Hmm, it’s black. Interesting. Why’d you make it black?”
“Seemed stealthy, sir,” I might respond. “Why? Is there something wrong with black?”
“No, nothing wrong. Just not what I was expecting.”
“What were you expecting, sir, if I might be so bold as to ask?”
“I dunno. Something cooler. Something that touches me. Something I’ve never seen before.”
“You were expecting something you’ve never seen before?” I might ask.
“Yes. There’s no breech of logic in that.”
“I didn’t say there—”
“I can expect something I’ve never seen before. It’s your job to deliver amazing shit.”
“I thought this was amazing. It’s a spaceship that is, uhm, invisible to other spaceships.”
“Yeah, yeah, I get all that,” the commander says, suddenly looking depressed. “I just thought, I dunno, this could be amazing and just blow people away but, gawd, I dunno, it’s just this black lump of a spaceship just sitting there and it makes me sad, you know? When I think about what it coulda been.”
Ah, what it could have been. I am all too familiar with that sorry trap. It’s the promise of the new project—it could be anything, but the moment you start working, you start to limit the possibilities and constrain the infinite. You chip away at what it could be until you are left with what it is.
Honestly, I am happy with that bargain. Work is all about arriving at a kind of balance, a compromise, between the various elements and forces in play.
“Compromise? Compromise is weakness. Compromise is fear. When we put our passion into our work we pursue art, not compromise.”
Oh, hello Commander. I thought you’d left the deck. Well, since you’re here, let’s talk about it a little, sir. If you think about it differently it suddenly seems like creative work—art, if you want—is all about compromise. You start with a blank page—it could be anything. Work is the process of forging a compromise with these infinite possibilities and making something. A lot of people—particularly advertising creatives—hate this process. The end product feels pretty small compared to the visions that fill the cavity between the ears.
But me, I love it. What is color but a compromise between white and black? What is harmony if not a compromise between dissonance and monotony? Where to draw the line, what to mix in, what to exclude—forget about the end product, that process is where all the joy is. That process, in fact, is the end product.
I’ve often said—quietly, so that none of the higher-ups might hear—that I’d rather have a good time making a bad ad than have a bad time making a good ad. Now, before some angry god half-understands me, let me say that the ideal scenario would be to have a good time making a great ad. All I mean is, put your faith in the process.
As the man said, once upon a time, “No tears in the poet, no tears in the poem.” I suppose he could have said “joy” or “fear” or “passion” or anything at all worth communicating. And all he meant, I suppose, was that you can’t trick people into feeling something. You’ve got to feel it yourself. And then find a way to take them there.
That’s the work.
Speaking of Frost, he’s got this awesome poem, Two Tramps In Mud Time, that is, in the end, all about work. A fellow is splitting wood in his yard when two men, two tramps, appear out of nowhere. It becomes clear that these men think it would be altogether better if they were to take over the wood splitting in return for cash money. There’s some beautiful imagery in this poem—you can feel the cold air in your lungs, the ache in your back from working a little harder than you know how—but the last two stanzas are where he sneaks up and gives you the sharp end of the idea. The tramps are watching this man work, just watching:
Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man's work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right--agreed.
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.
Holy crap is that beautiful. Avocation and vocation, love and need, work and play, Heaven and the future. So many people seem to think that writing is all about having a way with words. But isn’t it really about wanting to say something—not something we’ve never heard before but something we already know in our hearts to be true—and then finding a way to say it so that somebody else can hear it again. That’s the writer’s work.
I’ve read this poem a hundred times and it gets me a little differently each time because I’m still figuring out, not what it means, but what it means to me. That’s the reader’s work.
I’m tempted to say that at least part of what the poet is saying here is that life is all about finding a way to work with opposites, to create something harmonious and meaningful out of discord—my left eye sees things one way, my right eye another, and I find my vision in a seamless compromise between the two.
But I don’t want to turn the poem to my own ends. So instead let me just quote another little bit that comes earlier in the narrative when the tramps are sizing our man up:
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.
Now it occurs to me that, in the history of man, few people have handled an ax as adroitly as George Benson. George was a child prodigy, discovered by jazz great Wes Montgomery, signed to Columbia by John Hammond. Benson played with the giants—Miles Davis, Jack McDuff, Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard—and had a hard-core reputation with the jazz elite.
But he had this idea.
He wanted to sing along with his guitar.
Big deal, right? Who doesn’t want to do that? Well, turns out it was a bit controversial
“The first time I tried to sing along with my guitar,” Benson said, “everybody in the studio booed. They said it wouldn’t work.”
Well, it was something they’d never heard before. And they didn’t like it. But George stuck with it—even though he had to change labels to get this new sound recorded—and the sing-along-with-my-guitar-solo style debuted with George’s 1976 remake of Leon Russell’s This Masquerade. It’s a lush, groovy, fromage-fest of 70’s funk and a lot of his biggest fans said he’d sold out. And I suppose the fact that it was the first-ever jazz album to go platinum just proves the point.
Still, when I listen to it, it moves me and I can’t help but wonder, what if he hadn’t done it? Listen to that beginning! He’s like, “I’m gonna sing along with my guitar and I defy you not feel it.” Wow. So many people think playing a guitar is all about being able to find the chords and hit the notes—and it is, of course—but more than being able to do it, you have to really tip your hat to the guy who thought to do it and then, having thought of it, did it.
Likewise, one afternoon in 1977, the author of this blog climbed behind the wheel of his forest green, six-cylinder Scout II and pointed it west. I’d just gotten my license and this was, by far, my longest solo journey ever, my first trip across the bridge, my first-ever visit to the exotic city of Providence, in order to attend the first concert of my young life—headlined by none other than Mr. George Benson. Nobody told me to do it. In fact, I’d been actively dissuaded by my peers who were more about Aerosmith and Foreigner and Tull. But I wanted to do this, I’d bought my ticket and here I was.
By the time I parked the car, I’d already had more urban adventure than I knew what to do with. I joined the throng pouring up the steps and into the concert hall. Decent seats, to the left, midway back. Billy Cobham opened up. Pretty much blew me away from the first song, but how many drum solos can you string together? Then Benson came out—he looked exactly like he looked on the album cover. That I was in such close proximity to this great musician was something I couldn’t quite fathom. Neither could any of my friends, for that matter, which is why I’d made the trip solo.
Then, as soon as it had begun, it was over and I shuffled out with everyone else into the cool fresh air of this aptly named city, strolled down the street, hopped back in my car and made my way east, arriving home well after midnight.
As I was coming through the garage my dad opened the door and stuck his head out.
“Oh, you’re back,” he said, as if he’d just happened to be up and curious about the garage at this hour. “How was the concert?”
“It was great,” I said.
“Good, good,” he said. He could give two shits about music, really.
I came up the steps and we walked into the kitchen together.
“Well, you got down there and back in one piece,” he said, moving on to a subject he did care about. “Good work.”
It hadn’t really seemed like work, but I kinda lit up anyway. It’s always nice when the old man gives you the nod.
Just last year he and my mom were coming home from one of his doctor’s appointments in Boston. He’d been a handful for quite some time, with his health and all, and my mom worked pretty hard to keep things moving forward on his terms. Sometimes he didn’t seem to notice. But on this day, they pulled into the garage, both exhausted, but also feeling pretty good about the day’s events. They’d gotten up there, they’d gotten back and it looked like he’d be approved for a new drug trial.
“You did a good job today, honey,” he said. “Good work.”
Stuff like that—after fifty years of marriage, your mate still sees you there and can get out of his own head long enough to say so. That might not be everything, it might not be enough, but it’s a good start. Or a good end, I should say.
Mom went around to help him get out and—I suppose you can see this coming—when she opened his door he collapsed onto the garage floor. I don’t know that he ever said another word. That’s life.