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You are listening to the Pop Culture Academy podcast. In this week's episode we're talking about artist revisions - revisions that work, revisions that don't work. George Lucas, for instance. Don't forget you can follow us on Twitter and FaceBook or subscribe to our YouTube channel. You can always find us at our home base at popcultureacademy.com.
Greetings and salutations and welcome to season 2, episode 18 of the Pop Culture Academy where we do our very best to treat pop culture with the seriousness that it deserves. So, as always, let's start with what we've been up to since our last episode before we get into the meat of the show. So last night my wife and I finished HBO's latest documentary, I'll Be Gone In The Dark, which you may know deals with the Golden State Killer who was, spoiler alert, sentenced just this week, sentenced to life. Deals with that case, particularly through the eyes of Michelle McNamara who's tireless work and bestselling book helped to reshape that case and bring it to national attention. So the story is really interesting if you're interested in true crime, if you're interested in serial killer kind of things. But if you follow the headlines you probably know most of the highlights. I will say the documentary is really well done, just as a documentary. I thought it was very well directed. Hits all the right notes. Raises some important questions about the nature of people and how we can never really know anyone, no matter how close we may be to them. When we turned this off last night that's what we sort of couldn't get out of our heads is this idea that even if they are family members, even if it's your spouse, you can't ever know anybody. And I mean, in some ways that's a very frightening sort of thing to say but if you think about it we simply can't break out of our skulls, you know, our consciousness. And as long as that's true we're always going to be mysteries to each other. And oddly enough, I mean, if this makes you feel any better, you're going to be in some ways a mystery to yourself, that is - your spouse will probably know you better than you know yourself in some ways. But you can't ever really truly know what's going on, how someone else is seeing the world. And in extreme cases you get somebody like the Golden State Killer.
Meanwhile I've been re-reading Red Dragon, one of the Hannibal Lecter novels, so not sleeping great at night the last week or two. I've tried to counter balance that darkness, and you know everybody needs a little darkness in their lives, tried to counterbalance that darkness with Mary Chapin Carpenter's latest album which is called Between the Dirt and the Stars, and actually that album as you'll see led me to this week's topic. I've read a lot of reviews that talk about how that album - the word that I keep running across is "reflective". And that's true for what it's worth. But my first experience of Mary Chapin Carpenter was back in 1992 with her album Come On Come On. Amazing album. One of those albums that is part of the soundtrack of my life. If you had to choose those 5 albums that make up your - you know that can just take you back to a moment in your life and that is certainly one for me. But it seems to me that she certainly might have been called reflective back then and that was almost twenty years ago. So, is it startling to say Mary Chapin Carpenter album is reflective? Frankly, I don't know anyone whose lyrics and sound and vocal delivery really pack so much nostalgia into the package of a song. And that's not always a good word, I know, nostalgia, we don't always like that word. It can seem smarmy or sugary or sentimental. But it's not in this case and I'm going to say something else that's probably not going to make it sound any better but Carpenter always makes you find the heart in every experience; like what is that - if you go back to your memories, what is the piece of the memory that tugs on you the most? Carpenter just manages to nail that in virtually every song that she does.
But all right, so this week I want to talk a little bit about the idea of revision, that is, re-making work. If we're talking about songs, and we will, songs that are re-made. And of course we know that that's a very common thing. We'll get into exactly what we mean for this episode but a couple of years ago Mary Chapin Carpenter's previous album, this is the 2018 I believe, was a collection of songs that actually she'd recorded before, one from each of her previous records. I think there were twelve records and then she added one additional new song to the album. So she took one song from each of her records and re-recorded it which actually is becoming a kind of a common thing for different reasons. That same year, as a matter of fact, in 2018, Paul Simon released a very similar album which he actually has said would be his last album. We'll see if that holds. But he also went back to songs from throughout his career, in his case songs that he just wasn't happy with them for some reason or another. He liked the songs, he liked the idea of the songs, maybe the lyrics but he just didn't feel like they were right. And so he went back and re-recorded them. And then of course within the last year (and I think this album did pretty well though I'm not sure I understand why) but Sting did something similar, came out with an album called My Songs which sort of went back through his catalog and re-recorded several of these songs both with The Police and as a solo artist. And all of this got me thinking about what it means to revise a body of work. And we'll talk about musicians, we'll talk about directors. This happens in several different genres.
But revision, it actually - as I was thinking about it - it raises a lot of interesting questions and that's kind of what usually gets me into a topic for the week is what kind of questions seem to bubble up to the surface when you're thinking about a pop culture subject. So, we could start with for instance - do we need new versions of things that we already know? Right? I think it's generally pretty well acknowledged - I don't know whether - I don't want to get into whether they are right or not but, I mean this many people can't be wrong. It's generally acknowledged that the Star Wars fan universe has never been happy with George Lucas' insistence on returning to those movies and tinkering with them. You know, the question is, do we need another new release of Star Wars with additional 30 seconds of bonus footage? People always ask this question and I think it's a fair question - do we need another version of "Satisfaction" or can we just say that The Rolling Stones kind of nailed it and we don't need to worry about it anymore? And yet we keep getting these new versions of "Satisfaction". But there are a lot of other questions that come up about revision as well and hopefully we'll hit on some of those as we go through the show.
In a sense most artists are quite familiar with the process of revision, it's something that they kind of get very used to and maybe get attached to in some ways. It's something that's usually built into the creative act. You don't just sit down to write the great American novel and just kind of vomit it out, you have to outline it. You have to draft it. You have to play with it. You have to have other people look at it, play with it a little more, revise, revise, revise. You're not done until it satisfies you or at least until it satisfies some judge, a publisher in this case. Now of course the exception to this rule would be the Beats, right? The Beat poets. Ginsberg, Kerouac, all those guys who like to proclaim "first draft, best draft" though, I mean, that was something of a misnomer. You know, if you know Kerouac, the story is - well this isn't a story this is the truth - famously he typed On the Road, the manuscript On the Road, on one long roll of teletype paper, just feeding it and feeding it into the typewriter and no breaks and no editing.
But...he'd been keeping notes for a long time and sort of shaping his ideas, thinking through the material. Now none of that completely diminishes the myth that the book is a "first draft, best draft". But it does complicate it a little. But I mean, revision for most artists is a fairly complicated thing. Creativity in general is this painful process. I was reminded while watching this documentary about Michelle McNamara just a couple of days ago. I had a professor once who said there's nothing quite as excruciating or quite as painful as the process of taking this thing, this idea that's in your head. In your head it's all shiny and beautiful and perfect and then putting it out there into the world in some form that can never be perfect, that's necessarily going to be flawed. And my professor said that that is the source of all procrastination, right? And it afflicts everyone from opera composers to first year comp. students. I mean it's just too hard to confront that. We all have good ideas; that's just a given. We all have these wonderful ideas in our minds it's just too hard to get them out and that's what separates the person who can do it and who can become the artist from the person who procrastinates for their entire life. And you know, I mentioned Michelle McNamara earlier, in the documentary Patton Oswalt, her husband, talks about telling her that finishing a work is actually the hardest thing because you've got those last beautiful bits of the idea, the last ones that are left and that are desperately clinging on to their perfect state. They don't want to leave your head and you have to, you really have to force them out to kill the perfect idea in order to complete the imperfect idea. So in these terms, revision becomes, it's a chance to try to take the awfulness that you've put it in and make it more like what's in your head and that can be - in some ways that's a very gratifying process to get it more and more like what you imagine it to be. In other ways it's a very difficult process because how do you do that? How do you capture what that perfect state was and how do you know, for instance, here's another question, how do you know when to let go?
Now, of course, we could talk about all kinds of revisions. In particular, probably the first thing this brings to mind at least when I think of revision is the cover song or the film remake or television remake. What does it mean to take someone else's work and to remake it, to transform it into something else? And that's a fascinating subject and it's one that's very apropos. I mean, this year's slate of films we've already seen Call of the Wild, The Invisible Man, Dolittle, we've had a live action Mulan. Secret Garden is coming out soon. I say "coming out" in whatever way things are going to come out. The Witches. We've got a new Dune coming up. We've got a new Westside Story. And all of that, all of those re-makes are just this year. But my interest in this episode, I mean, that's a whole episode in itself and it needs to be dealt with but my interest here is in what makes an artist themselves go back to their original work and take another stab at it. And I mean, you know, obviously revision is part of almost every artist's process. But once the thing - the artifact, the work of art - gets out there into the world, what causes an artist to want to pull it back again and change it? And of course, that raises the question, maybe, when is something done? Right? How do you know it's done. How do you know when to let go of it - when you release a film in theaters and I'm looking at your George Lucas, do you call it finished and let it go? Shouldn't you, I guess? I mean, isn't that the convention that once you release it into the theater you've let go of it? You know, there's actually a whole wikipedia article I was looking at today - all of the changes, the big and small changes that Lucas made over the years to his original trilogy. Now I assume since he's sold it now to Disney that life of Star Wars, that sort of revisionist tendency that Lucas kept having that that's over.
But I don't know. And I guess it's impossible to really answer the question why he made each of the changes. Probably they all stemmed from different impulses. Obviously some of them had to do with advancing technology, right? Lucas feels or felt that a film like Star Wars is so rooted in technology which was in many ways a technological breakthrough, invented so many special effects that a film like that should be updated to match the times. It shouldn't be allowed to sort of look dated I suppose. And so you get CGI storm troopers and you know these new creatures on Tatooine to sort of, I don't know, go with the times and the times were CGI. Now, you know, the CGI was fairly primitive and some of it doesn't look great now. I mean, in fact, in some ways maybe he aged those films, you know, by trying to prevent them from aging. I don't know. Some of his changes were to restore things, obviously, that the studio had insisted he cut. For example, his relationship to his childhood friend Biggs which some people felt was a distraction from other parts of the film. But restored, and this is an example of where the restoration that Lucas does, the revision that Lucas goes through actually maybe gives more depth to Luke's character; this childhood friend who dies. Some of the changes have to do with the progression of the films that is, for instance, Episode IV, that title wasn't added until we had a second film coming out, right? Until there was Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars was it's own singular thing and so, you know, so they go back - well you know, again, there are debates about why he chose Episode IV. Did he know up front that he was going to go back and do I,II,III or was it a gimmick? Doesn't matter. But that gets added after the fact because something happened, another film is coming out. Another change - the ghost of Anakin Skywalker that shows up at the end of Jedi has been altered, you know, several times to reflect whatever has happened to move that universe forward so that now I think, I guess - I assume it is still Hayden Christensen who's there in that little trilogy of ghosts.
On the other hand it isn't completely clear why Greedo has to shoot first in the cantina scene. That's the one that really bothers people I think. It seems only to make Han a "better guy" and I think there are lots of us who sort of liked him more when he was a little bit scruffier, when he was more of an outlaw I guess, to be perfectly frank.
But then there are whole other issues here - who controls, who owns a work of art? Right? And again, this is an enormous issue and this is just to touch on it but I think Star Wars fans would definitely say that they should have rights when it comes to that universe. They, you know we've talked about, we talk all the time about universes on here, we talk about fictional universes. The fans are the ones, the viewers, the audience, those are the people who inhabit that universe or who come to live in that universe along with the characters that the artist creates. And they like, those fans particularly Star Wars fans, like to make their voices heard. And, you know, do they have a point? I mean, if you are an artist you say look, I made this. It's mine. What was the way that, I guess it was Chris Carter's old ending to all The X-Files episodes - "I made this." It's mine and I'm in charge of whether it gets changed. And if I want to change it, it's mine and I'm going to change it. And we talked recently about the idea that that notion of ownership is part of a long cultural era where the book is the main kind of art, and the painting, and these two are usually solo productions. So we develop this idea because those are our two main art forms; we develop this idea that the author owns her work. But once she publishes it, produces it or, you know, puts it out there into the world, is it really still hers? Do I get to decide what a movie means as an audience member? As the viewer? Don't I get a say in what a movie means? Or is the director the only one who can really, you know, the only person who's allowed to interpret it.
Of course, revision is an important issue historically. Charles Dickens famously had to rewrite the ending to Great Expectations to please his audience who wanted the characters to live happily ever after. So there's an incident where the revision wasn't the author's own idea but rather the audience kind of pushed that revision on him. Henry James is very famously associated with revisions; constantly, I mean, he was the original George Lucas, right? Constantly going back and tinkering with his novels and in fact he re-issued the entire set, right, in a new edition late in his life that he'd revised very heavily. Now, you know, in James's case you sort of get the mature master giving you all he has, right? It's like going back to his works from when he was younger and less experienced and less of a gifted writer and fixing those shortcomings and making it better. I want to put forward as I'm nearing the end of my life I want to put forward my work in the very best way that I possibly can. Should that be allowed? Don't look at the junk I made when I was younger. Look at how good I am now.
On the other hand if we go back just a bit to the world of jazz I don't know that any song in jazz was or is ever fixed, right? No song is thought of as completed or done. How many recordings do we have of Thelonious Monk playing "Around Midnight"? How many recordings do we have of Bill Evans playing "Waltz for Debbie"? And each one of those is a completely different interpretation by the artist because that thing, that thing that they are playing isn't considered done when they get to the end, right? It's one long over the course of their career one long interpretation with many variations. Jazz is an improvisational form and the point is never "here's the finished product". The point is always what will this particular moment produce?
Now to some extent, rock music has kept that alive with live performances. When you go to a live performance you expect something different. You expect there to be a variation in what you heard and if we really get down to it, I mean, these days watching Duran Duran the other day on AXS tv they were going over Duran Duran's album Rio on classic albums and John Taylor talking about the fact that he creates this part in the studio for the album and it's a brilliant part, it sounds great but it was created out of two or three different parts that he fused together and so then before he can go out on the road and tour this he has to learn how to play this complicated thing that only ever existed on three different pieces of tape. So then there's the question of what is the "original" and what is the revision and how's that even work? But a lot of hardcore rock fans are far more interested in the live performances than in the original conical recordings. That is, if you want to put it this way, they're more interested in the revisions than in, you know, the finished product per se that came out of the studio. And sometimes, I mean this is certainly true, lots of times the live version really is better. No one is going to say for instance that "Fulsom Prison Blues" isn't better in the live recording Cash made of it at Fulsom prison. I mean it just is. Jimmy Hendricks' "Voodoo Child" at Woodstock; it's significantly better than the album version of that song. And so the revision, again, the revision if you want to call it that works better than the original.
But then you get into other revisions. I think we have to consider that word very carefully as we go through this. Re-vision, to re-see this, to re-think it. Seeing in another way. The Eagles famously do this with "Hotel California" in the late 90s when they decided to reunite. And really, you know, both great versions I'd say but each with a significantly different flavor. Each has a different feel to it. And yeah the later one is live but I'm really not thinking of it, I mean I really think of it as a second version almost as though another band had created it though it's not. It's The Eagles going back and reinterpreting their own work. Who else could we talk about in this regard? Phil Collins' revision on his first big album, of the Genesis song. He's part of Genesis and Duke album and the song "Behind the Lines" and Collins sort of says "I'm going to take another stab at this", right? It's fine the way it is on the album that we made but I want to see what it sounds like in this new version, speed it up and with horns.
Of course, you know, there often are multiple versions of a song when it's originally created, right? You might make a disco version or an extended play version or a 12" remix version, whatever you want to call it. There are album versions versus single versions. And so in that case, you know, are we creating a revision in the very moment that we're creating the song? Is it - it's already being revised. But let me end by going back to where we started with these three fairly recent albums all three of which involve an artist who is remaking his or her own songs. So I mean, here's how Mary Chapin Carpenter described sort of her inspiration for doing this when she was interviewed by Rolling Stone. She said,
"Certain phrases jump out at you and recently that happened exactly. Patti Smith was speaking about life and about finding your way. The essence of what she was saying was that life is hard and it can break your heart. It can tear you apart and disappoint you but there are so many beautiful things about it too."
She lists a few things like "sometimes it's about meeting an old friend." And then she says "sometimes it's just the sky. And that was in my head and I wrote it. Sometimes a phrase just jumps out and all of a sudden it means everything to me." Now, what she's talking about there in literal terms is the ending song of the album which is a new tune that she wrote called "Sometimes It's Just The Sky" sort of getting her inspiration from Patti Smith. But there's something in there too that tells you about the whole album, right? It's about going back and thinking about the life that you've lived and the good times and the bad times and the hard times and the disappointing times and the beautiful times and she talks about sometimes reflecting like that is about meeting an old friend and that's exactly what she does on this album. She goes back and treats, you think of these songs as old friends, and she goes back and re-encounters them. And that's a very poetic kind of exercise to go back and do that. Now, you know, you can listen to that album and decide song by song whether it's successful or not, if she achieves that, but it's a reasonable reason to do revision like that. To go back and reflect on your body of work, to go back and think about, you know, what have I done and how might I think about these subjects now that I am a little more mature. One of the songs that's on there is "This Shirt" which comes from one of her earliest albums and it's a song that is so - I mean I said this at the beginning when we were talking about Mary Chapin Carpenter, the original song is already so reflective. I don't know how old she was when she wrote that song, it's an amazing feat for a young songwriter to have been so nostalgic and reflective and to have captured that feeling in a song. And then to go back 20 years later and to rethink that song now that you really are mature, now that you really do have experience to reflect on. It's really a fascinating, of all the songs on the album I think that's the one that grabs me the most.
So Paul Simon's album In The Blue Light is a little different. He's not just re-encountering songs, it's not sort of reflection - I mean I guess it is reflection but there's something more to it than that. It's more like the Henry James thing. Simon's stated purpose was that he had, you know, a dozen songs or so that he recorded over the course of his career but that he just wasn't happy with, for whatever reason he never felt like they gelled when he did them the first time. And so going back and revising was a statement of "now that I'm mature, look what I can do with this song. It was a good song, a good idea, but I wasn't mature enough to make it what was in my head." Right? Let's go back to that idea. And, "now that I'm better at figuring out how to capture what's in my head, how to turn that idea into reality I'm going to go back and correct these songs."
Now Sting's album, on the other hand, struck me very differently, more along the lines of George Lucas only I gotta say not so noble. You know Sting's always been comfortable revising. He worked with a lot of jazz musicians at the beginning of his solo career and so this makes sense but he's always been someone who is comfortable with the idea that a song wasn't finished, it was never finished, it was just a version and feel free to go back and revise. When he went solo, for instance, he had no qualms about re-recording in the studio and in his early live performances many of The Police's songs. Like Dream of the Blue Turtles features "Shadows in the Rain". And, let's be fair, it's a very interesting re-examination of the original. Maybe superior to the original. He redid "Demolition Man" for the the Stallone/Snipes movie of that name. Oddly enough he redoes "Demolition Man" another time here, I don't know why that's necessary. Here's the problem. This is not Simon carefully re-crafting songs to dig deep into them to make them better. It's like the opposite is true on this album. It's like the heart's been completely ripped out of the song. And you know, I can't say what he was thinking, you know, is the point to try to update these songs for a YouTube/Spotify generation? And if so, maybe I don't get the point. Maybe I'm too old to get what that generation is hearing. But what it comes across as to me, as somebody who has listened to Sting for his whole career, is like a lounge act. It's like some sort of Vegas version of these great songs, and they are great songs. And part of that has to do with how he goes about his revision. There's not Stewart Copeland here, no Andy Summers. And it turns out those guys from The Police were actually pretty important to those songs, right? Okay there's Sting songs, and you know, Stewart Copeland, God love him, in a recent interview talking about Sting's brilliance and how they really knew right from the beginning that this is the guy this is the angelic sort of God-like figure who was going to guide The Police to greatness and they understood that. But those two guys were essential to what The Police produced and turns out when you take them out and you don't replace them with anything it loses some of its, I don't know, soul. As far as the solo album, his solo work where he's sort of remaking some of his solo songs as well, the same thing that you might say is true. It's not, in this case it's not The Police, but all of those brilliant jazz musicians that he surrounded himself with in the beginning, carefully chose - Brandford Marsalis just to name one, any of those world-class jazz musicians that he used - you take those people out and you know the whole thing just feels kind of hollow. It really feels like an attempt to, again, to be perfectly honest, it feels like an attempt to cash in one more time on the tunes that you already cashed in on once. I mean, again, if it's that jazz thing and you're going back to the song and it's just not quite finished and you keep working, fine. I don't feel like that's what this was. It's not the way it comes across. Look, I love Sting, okay? You know, I drove with a friend of mine, we were going to see him in Dallas and it was 6 hours away and we did nothing but play Sting tunes in the car, this is 1991 somewhere around there, nothing but play Sting tunes in the car. We talked about, you know, we talked jokingly but we talked about inventing the church of Sting. That's how serious we were about Sting. Sting's first three albums are part of my psyche. I don't know how more deeply to express that. And, I know that it's become popular lately for artists to re-record their songs, particularly there's actually a very good reason, legal reason and that a lot of them are trying to get the rights back to their songs. If they re-record the song, you know, then suddenly they get the rights back from the publication company or whoever happens to own them. And Prince is a perfect example of someone who did that. But this is much less like Prince's re-recordings and a lot more like those of The Little River Band. I don't know if you know that group. Such a sad story. That was an amazing group that produced some great hits. I always think of them as kind of the poor man's Eagles. Australia band. Just lots and lots of great tunes but over time the original people in that band have slowly left or been forced out until now that band is nothing but a cover band. And yet they are still going by the name The Little River Band but it's nobody who was ever associated with the original The Little River Band. They've also put out an album on re-recording of Little River Band hits. And it's such a blatant attempt to undermine the original and to sort of push the original people out and make money for themselves. It's a cover band releasing an album of covers and stealing the name of the real band. It's tragic.
As usual, I could go on indefinitely on this subject but that's enough for this episode. Thank you so much for joining us once again. If you like what you hear please follow us on Twitter and FaceBook. Subscribe to our YouTube channel and tell your friends. That's important; tell other people about the show. I'll be back next week with an all-new episode. See you then.
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