OTR, Take 49: Bartees Strange - Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy

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This pricy stuff makes me dizzy

How often do you feel suddenly aware that you're caught in a spiral in which you're just cycling through obligations, each coming faster than the last time, each time bringing slightly less joy? A regression of sorts, each time reverting back to the beginning, each obligation its own beginning and end.

Giambattista Vico, an 18th-century Italian philosopher (technology a professor of rhetoric, which shows how little our job titles mean), has a really compelling theory of historical spirals – not cycles, as we generally think about them, nor the "history repeats" nonsense. Rather, societies proceed through natural flows of affluence, advancement, prosperity before forgetting everything that drove these things and making the same fucking mistakes that led to a decline the last time. The thing that distinguishes Vico from the history-repeats nonsense is that he recognizes that it's never the same fucking mistakes, but similar mistakes, each time tuned to the new socio-political moment. I don't know if Walter Miller was familiar with Vico, but his novel A Canticle for Liebowitz is a masterpiece playing out this idea.

Two digressions by the end of the first two paragraphs. My brain is already very ADHD, but these past few weeks have, I feel, weakened my ability to hold the cords in the rope together. So we'll see how this edition of On the Record goes...

I'm Mr. November, I won't fuck us over

The truth of the matter is that entrepreneurship is a highwire act: exhilarating (literally, "losing breath") and frightening, with a healthy dose of anxiety thrown into the mix. Growth brings on its own additional risks: added payroll, calculated bets – still bets! – on additional revenue streams, investment in infrastructure. It's really difficult to calibrate this accurately as you're building. The mix gets out of wack, with payroll and investment outpacing new receipts, with additional work outpacing the infrastructure or people needed to service it.

It can be dizzying, all while trying to improve as a manager and leader, trying to think through logistics for workflow, putting out small fires...and, oh yeah, doing customer work.

I've had some well-meaning folks ask, "Why the haste? What's with the manic pace?" And they're good questions, questions that I'd ask someone else if I saw them acting like I am. I mean, Clare watches me go and taps out.

Who needs a teddy when you have mom's shoe?

Is it a good sign when you leave your super-sized terrier sputtering to keep up?

If only to be a resolute man

In the last OTR, I mentioned that I would be featuring some more of my absolute favorite bands in the newsletter and wrote about Speaking in Tongues by Talking Heads. After spending some time with Byrne & co., I revisited Byrne's beautiful, quirky-as-hell book Arboretum, and I fell in love all over again. We hear all the time how important it is to create authentically – but so few of us do. We shape our work to be just normal enough that it's recognizable, easily assimilated to others' experience.

But that's not really what great art does. Great art requires a shift from and in us, rather than accommodating us. We should be changed by it, moved, left a little undone and put back together anew.

I think that's what I respect about Byrne. He gives no quarter. He invites you over and pulls up a chair for you, but he's not going to sugarcoat anything or make it easy for you, and books like Arboretum are perfect examples of this.

Today I offer a pretty unique piece in my pantheon of favorite artists: an album of covers performed by my favorite new musician in the last five years of songs by my favorite band still playing.

Covers as reinvention rather than regurgitation.

Yeah, it's a strange conflagration of things, and that's partly why I love it. The other part is...well, we'll get to that. So, today's record is Bartees Strange's Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, an album covering songs by The National.

We're the heirs to the glimmering world

I've written about Bartees Strange in these parts before. Bartees spent much of his early life around the world, as his father was in the Air Force, stationed in England and various other places. His mother is an opera singer. After his dad retired from the military, the family settled down in Mustang, Oklahoma for middle and high school. He learned to play guitar from local country and blues players and quickly got into the hardcore and punk scene. After college, he moved to Brooklyn and played in several bands while working in public relations, before moving to DC to do PR at a climate change NGO. His is a distinctly American story.

It's interesting: when I've given the precis above about Bartees, most people are then surprised to find out he's black. And it's his sense of blackness in some white-dominated spaces that led to the creation of this album.

Like me, one of Bartees's favorite bands is The National. Back in 2019 (in the before-times), he went to a National show in DC and felt the awkwardness of being the only, or one of the very few, people of color at the show. It was a sea of early-middle-aged white dudes, letting the tails of their shirts slip out of their slacks as they sang along to lyrics like:

Underline everything, I'm a professional
in my beloved white shirt
I'm going down among the saints

He went home and ruminated on the experience. He was in the process of writing and recording his first album, Live Forever, and shopping around the album to various folks in the industry. He had a conversation with someone at Brassland Records (which is owned by Aaron and Bryce Dessner, the guitarist twins in The National) about his record and mentioned that The National was one of his favorite bands. The label guy nodded absently – yeah, yeah, buddy, cool story.

But then Bartees said, "Yeah dude. I'm working on some covers of their songs."

"Oh? Cool. Why don't you send some over for us to hear?"

I carry the dollhouse safe on my shoulders

One of the eternal truths about life (and there are very few) is that we're all making it up as we go. Even the most experty-expert is making it up, albeit with better information and more experience.

There's something reassuring about this, if you let yourself get past the initial panic attack. The way things are being done? There's nothing immutable about it. You can change it. There's no shame in not knowing how to do something. Just start doing it and see what happens. There is no path for your life except the one you blaze. (There are paths other people will give you, pre-made and with the promise of ease; be wary.)

So why the haste I'm acting with right now? A few reasons, one business-related and the other decidedly not.

We have to do important things before we're ready. We figure out how to do important things by doing them, and no amount of non-doing learning will prepare us. Pushing our lives forward is a confidence game. (I love how words give themselves away: confidence – "con-fido" or "with faith," though there's no hint of religion in the Latin.)

Time Management, from Arboretum

Purely Estates right now has a window to capitalize on a business opportunity and to spin that opportunity into a much larger and stable one, if I play it right. It involves hiring, engaging technical vendors, and partnering with subject matter experts. So there's a big investment of time and money upfront. And the thing that keeps me up at night? I don't know what I'm doing.

I know better than I did two years ago, but like all the rest of you, I'm making it up as I go, running a series of rapid experiments in the process.

But why the hurry? Because Audra and I have something else we're not prepared for arriving sometime in July and I'm going to need to be able to step away from the business without fear of it falling apart.

After nearly six years, more rounds of IVF than we thought our bank account could handle, and lots of heartache, we're expecting our first, and perhaps only, child this summer.

How close am I to losing you?

Bartees walked out of the meeting with Brassland in a bit of a panic. While he loved the National, he had no covers worked out, let alone recorded. He put himself on the hook for a lift he wasn't prepared for.

He had a few options at this point. He could go dark and never contact anyone at Brassland ever again. Except he wanted to sign to Brassland pretty badly. He could pull up tabs of some songs, gather some bandmates, and pound out some standard covers. This would have been easy, if forgettable. Even though people want to hear note-perfect recreations of classics when they see a cover or tribute band, that's incredibly boring except in that particular nostalgiac circumstance.

Rather than take the easy way out, he sat down and thought about the songs he thought he could bring something new to and set about reimagining some tunes. Because here's the thing: what's the fun in playing someone else's song note for note? What do you learn about yourself? What do you add to the world?

The truth is, when we do things in our own voice, there's no roadmap. We have to figure it out on our own – even when there's a rough guide, whether it be a song performed by someone else or a business operated by someone else. For it to be yours, you have to go out on a limb...and as Sam Clemmons always sez, you've gotta go out on the limb, because that's where all the fruit is.

So I leave you with two thoughts:

Take a listen to these two versions of "Lemonworld," the first by The National and the second reimagined by Bartees Strange. This is an absolute masterclass in owning a song, creating it anew. There are some covers that are so transcendent you might not know they're covers (Aretha straight robbed Otis Redding of "Respect" and left nothing in his pockets, while Whitney's version of "I Will Always Love You" leaves Dolly's stuck in neutral).

Let's have more of that energy, both in art and in the confidence game of our lives. I'll be over here, frantically trying to prepare for something you can't prepare for.

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