The Daily

Arts & Culture

Early Writhings

August 16, 2012 | by

Going through my childhood desk recently I cleaned out years of weird detritus (novelty bar mitzvah magnets, Nickelodeon magazines, packets of incense cones) and came upon a copy of The Highland Fling, my high school newspaper. I opened the paper and scanned the newsworthy items of a typical suburban high school, circa spring 2001: various sports victories, a pointless Q&A with a sophomore, the possibility of a new town pool. Then I came to the reason I’d saved this particular paper: in its pages I had reviewed the Dave Matthews Band album Everyday.

That’s exciting, I thought. Let’s read what is sure to be some wonderful and delightfully precocious writing.

Or the other possibility.

Reading the review I cringed. There was light to moderate trembling. Maybe even perspiration.

“It seems like there is nothing left for life-long Dave Matthews fans,” the review begins. (I guess “life-long” referred to the under-ten set, as the band had only been putting out records for some eight years.) I was only fifteen when I penned this hatchet job, yet given that I wasn’t even old enough to operate a motor vehicle, I display a sweeping critical jadedness. I huffed and I puffed and I blustered (“underachieving and disappointing ... run-of-the-mill”). I referred to Glen Ballard, the album’s producer and cowriter, as “the producer of numerous successes,” at which point my readers could hardly be blamed for thinking I’d written my review in Mandarin and then put it through a crude translation program. But perhaps the most cringe-worthy—and my favorite—part is the following description: “a tepid electric roller coaster of lyrically vapid tracks and unoriginal, lackluster compositions.”

I recall clearly that, with all the self-assurance of a seasoned writer, I bristled at the editor’s changes to my review, particularly the addition of the nonsensical line, “The material, however, does rise above the level of the music.” And I stand by that objection. But if the inclusion of that line embarrassed me even then—which must’ve been a pretty difficult thing to do—I remember feeling that it was overshadowed by the review’s stunning conclusion, a bit of bravado that I’d feared would be altered or cut altogether: “So after all this time, was it even worth the wait? Hell, it was hardly worth the time that it took me to download it off Napster.”

Ah, the fools, asleep at the wheel! In one sentence I managed to both say “hell” and admit to illegal file sharing—and all in a school newspaper! If that didn’t affirm this fifteen-year-old boy’s faith in a free press, well, nothing would.

Constitutional triumphs aside, the review was hardly revolutionary. Listening now to Everyday, I realize that my judgment wasn’t at fault: the album is bad. I am no longer a fan of Dave Matthews—Everyday was the last day for me—but there are elements of earlier albums that I can appreciate and songs I still enjoy, mostly, but not completely, for sentimental reasons. I was correct at fifteen in thinking that Everyday, with its hard new direction, had the air of a hippie slipping a stiff leather jacket over his dashiki. I just didn’t know how to say it.

After reading the review I immediately had two opposing thoughts: one, I’m immensely glad that everything wasn’t published online a decade ago; two, I should put this on Facebook. Why not? I thought. People would find it funny, and a healthy dose of self-deprecation, plus three to seven caveats, would mitigate any embarrassment over what was just juvenalia anyway. After all, you can’t be—or at least shouldn’t be—embarrassed about anything you did when you were a minor.

On the other hand: “tepid electric roller coaster.”

I thought it over as I emptied my desk of the many things I had saved because I’d thought I’d one day want them. Old yo-yos and lanyards and baseball cards met an ignoble end. When I finished cleaning out all my childhood garbage I got up and didn’t post the review. Perhaps the most basic goal of being a human is to go around every day trying to not make an ass of yourself. In a time when every hasty email and wall post and tweet can spiral out of control in a hundred unexpected and embarrassing ways, this is probably more difficult than ever. There’s rarely a need to help things along by posting cringe-inducing things about yourself online, ancient history or otherwise. That, anyway, is what I told myself.

But there was also a hint of something more than a basic embarrassment which helped keep my old review offline. It was more of a worry, one which I imagine is common, if not universal, to any writer who reads his early work; a worry that probably applies not only to writers but to anyone looking back and making an honest assessment. The worry that your early stuff isn’t painful because of how bad it is, but because maybe you haven’t come so very far at all.

(That said, if one were looking to name a psychedelic band, one could do worse than Tepid Electric Roller Coaster.)

Josh Lieberman lives in Brooklyn, New York. His last piece for the Daily was on Holiday Magazine.

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  1. Brandon | August 17, 2012 at 1:02 am

    Musicians tend to look back at their earlier work in a similar fashion. And, have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? It looks at people who don’t know that they don’t know; David Dunning spoke to Errol Morris about it and said that a big part of being intelligent is knowing that there are things you don’t know that you don’t know.

    It’s a fun interview, by the way. Dunning talks about a bank robber who was too incompetent to know that he was incompetent. High jinks ensue!

    The Dunning-Kruger effect shows that ignorance, not skill or knowledge, usually begets confidence, and that the unskilled are typically unaware of their lack of skill– the very skills it takes to recognize an intelligent argument, for instance, are the same skills it takes to craft one. This leads to stupid people thinking that smart people are stupid, and it also means that one who is too incompetent to be a professional singer is likely too incompetent to know the levels of their own incompetence!

    Of course, these people can change: exposure to training and/or knowledge can help rid them of their bias, or at least improve things a bit.

    The Dunning-Kruger effect can also be applied, as Dunning has done, to life habits. People learn a certain way of living, and then, because there are things that they don’t know that they don’t know to which they remain oblivious, they make the same mistakes over and over again. They aren’t aware of the things they could be doing differently.

    Very thought provoking stuff. And, to ease your mind a bit, the fact that you cringe at and find fault with your earlier work is a good sign, a sign that you continued to grow as a writer, and will probably continue to grow as a writer.

    And really, just as long as we don’t publish any truly rubbish writings or record any rubbish songs, things are good! An 8 out of 10 ain’t bad, but it might be to someone who is churning out 10-out-of-10 quality work.

  2. TSB | August 17, 2012 at 6:29 am

    “I immediately had two opposing thoughts: one, I’m immensely glad that everything wasn’t published online a decade ago; two, I should put this on Facebook. ”

    Captures both our current moment and also the eternal wish of the writer, which is also a kind of abyss–”It all matters. It is all of use, somehow. A piece to a puzzle. I’ll put it over there, in the corner, and one day its meaning will become apparent.”

  3. bob | August 17, 2012 at 11:44 am

    “being intelligent is knowing that there are things you don’t know that you don’t know”

    Brandon makes it sound as though Dunning was saying something original. The quote should be attributed to, of course, Socrates.

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