Revisiting the talent-penis

I can’t remember how my dad and Bennett and I got started on the subject of Carole King, but for some reason on Saturday night we had this conversation about, basically, ‘do you think Carole King is sad that she wrote all those amazing songs that are embedded in everyone’s subconscious and then, after Tapestry, never wrote another hit again?’ And Bennett said that probably she’s fine and actually pretty happy to have accomplished what she did. And then as if by magic the next day we turned on the public television station in my grandmother’s new apartment in a very fancy Senior Living Community, and there was contemporary-era Carole King, performing on her ‘Welcome To My Living Room’ tour. She did look pretty happy. The audience was happy, too. They sang along to every word of ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ and ‘Natural Woman,’ even the men. It really is amazing how many songs she wrote that are just constantly playing in the supermarket and the nail salon and on the soundtrack of the in-flight romantic comedy.  If they played 10 of them back to back on the oldies station you wouldn’t even think anything of it, you’d just think, “Yeah, that’s the oldies station.”

Still, though? I bet those first few post-Tapestry years were shitty. King had plenty of money, sure, and her albums still charted, but she must have sensed that whatever it had been — whatever that spark was that allowed her to just sit down at the piano one day after writing so many mediocre songs for her Brill building bosses and take the words that her then-husband Gerry Goffin had written (about wondering whether the dude you’ve just done it with would wake up the next morning and say he has a lot of work to do) and write that amazing melody to go along with them — was gone.

Henry James called the seeds of inspiration the “donnée,” and he could trace his stories back to these specific moments when something– well, cocktail-party anecdotes, usually — would spark invention.  And then he would document those moments in his meticulous journals.  It is pretty hard to relate to Henry James.

It is a little bit easier — oh, you knew it was coming! — to relate to Liz Phair, who is still going around performing Exile in Guyville and and promising us a new album this Fall.  When Liz put out that Avril album two albums ago the entire world wrote a lot of things about what had happened to Liz’s talent and career and what it meant — for women, for our culture, for Liz’s future as an artist.  Bennett however wrote a thing for the Universal Review about the nature of talent.  I still reread it on a regular basis.  It has a lot of awesome parts but this is what our high school journalism teacher Mr. Mathwin would call its ‘nut graf’ (and boy would be be pissed that it comes almost at the very end):

The song Shatter, off of Exile in Guyville, makes me cry every time. Every time. Also, you know Fuck and Run gets me because of the whole slut issue. Liz Phair is talented. She just is. She is smart and funny and weird and also really really hot. I don’t think she has lost her talent, or even given up, exactly.

But what if good writing exists only in some magical intersection between talent and experience? I am thinking that maybe talent is like a penis. It has length and width. In Ms. P’s case, I think it is very, very long, but narrow as a pencil. She is incredibly, dazzlingly good at capturing the essence of being a bored, stoned 22 year-old who still lives with her parents and fucks a lot of dummies in rock and roll bands. Unfortunately, you can’t write about that when you are a 35 year-old mom who lives in LA and drives an Escalade. Maybe there is nothing you can do about it. When your narrow talent ceases to match the specifics of your life, maybe you have no choice but to get the April Lavine machine to program crappy underwear jingles on your behalf.

The moral, I guess, is that we have an obligation to … I don’t know what, exactly.  Try to make ourselves receptive satellite dishes for those little airborne bits of whatever?  Or just pray that our particular talent-penis turns out to be one of the good kind: maybe not the longest, and maybe not the thickest, but decently proportionate, with a satisfying heft.

15 comments to Revisiting the talent-penis

  • make mine silicone, please… (material matters!)

  • Lionel Mandrake

    I knew Liz in Chicago way back when. She was really dull.

  • bennett

    Liz Phair is really more of a Carly Simon than a Carole King. Oh, hell: WE ARE ALL CARLY SIMON.

  • I loved this: a cogent, poignant exploration of…talent? Of inspiration? Of that which prompts any creative person to produce art that is truly unique, amazing, and identifiable to its listeners / readers / viewers / etc.? Although I’ll admit I’ve rather a dim view of the moral you describe, since I don’t think that most artists are receptive, anymore, to those little airborne bits of whatever. But I like to believe the great ones, the still genuinely amazing artists, such as those you cited, are still able to do it, still committed to doing it.

    So thank you for this needful reminder.

  • The decisive factor is not so much the length or girth of the imagination penis but the potency of the creativity semen stored in the nut grafs.

  • I think talent is more of a vagina, and once a month we bleed ideas

  • emily

    I was like actively hoping that someone would make a case for talent being a vagina, I just realized.

  • well, vaginas and creativity have birth and, well, creation in common, isn’t it?

    and the, um, receptacle-esque quality of the vagina makes much more sense when read alongside the whole airborne bits and nut grafs thing. and size and girth and heft only have meaning in context.

    by the way, phil, you are fucking hilarious! what the hell is a nut graf??

    the penis metaphor, for me, is really a stretch. so to speak.

  • chris

    Now I know why I’ve had a crush on Carole King since like, 10. Agree about Henry James, although my radar (your satellite dish) at some point became stuck in the “up” position; sometimes it’s a gift, sometimes it’s a curse. An even balance between the two would be nice. I’m trying to find that; more invention, less transcription, more trust, less guessing, ya know? And without the talent-vagina, the talent-penis wouldn’t exist, let us remember that.

  • I still don’t understand why everyone hates Liz’s self-titled CD–hate the one after that–it’s far less consistent–but to hate the self-titled one? It’s so weird to me–did anyone really even bother to LISTEN to it? Not just read a scathing Meghan O’Rourke review or hear the chorus to Why Can’t I on the radio, and grab a pitchfork–I mean L-I-S-T-E-N. There is an actual depth to that album if you care to dig for it–check out Little Digger or Friend of Mine–those songs (not produced by the Matrix) by the way as they only produced three of the tracks on that album) are KILLER. And killer in the same way that any of Liz’s older EIG days. Also, Liz, even on her WORST day, her most souled out day, is 20 times better than like, all of the boring, indistinguishable singer-songwriters that have saturated and continue to saturate the market place every day of our lives.

  • Stephen

    Writers use metaphor so much that I almost find myself skimming over them at times, but (like any penis) this one was impossible to ignore.
    In fact, this cock tale party anecdote has suddenly given me the inspiration for an entire novel about penises and dummies in rock bands and middle-aged singers living in their parents’ basements who suddenly find themselves in supermarkets listening to the soundtrack of their lives.
    Nobody steal this idea.

  • sac

    The pen-is mightier than the sword.

  • is your tag really ’sac’?

  • I was thinking about Liz Phair having a long, narrow penis all day yesterday, so when I got home last night I looked at the cover of Exile in Guyville, and I have to admit you’re right: you can kind of see the tip of it poking up in the bottom right corner.

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