Over the holiday I’ve been reading Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max’s excellent biography of the writer David Foster Wallace. I am a Wallace junkie. Everyone has that one book they discover in their late teens that shapes their sense of what kind of grown up they want to be. Mine (and lots of other people’s) was Infinite Jest. It used my kind of language — a self-consciously brainy, running-away-from-itself subspecies of English — to convey a truth I was being tortured by, even if I didn’t know it yet: no matter how smart you are, the brain is never in charge of the heart. Wallace and his intention to “make the head throb, heartlike,” along with masters of cerebral sincerity like Jeff Mangum and Jonathan Richman and Bill Callahan became my life coaches as I confronted the fact that as I made my way through life being a smartass would not keep me from being wounded.
Though I’ve come a long way since then, I still confront that old version of myself from time to time. When something is warm and good and kind of pleased with its own warm goodness, I bristle. That’s why I hesitated to see Emmet Malloy’s new film Big Easy Express at a special screening in New York recently, hosted by the Morrison Hotel Gallery. I love this filmmaker. He seems to specialize in coaxing easy intimacy out of even the more reclusive artists. (His 2010 White Stripes documentary about their 2007 Canadian Tour, Under Great White Northern Lights, is a marvel). But, I was still skeptical. Big Easy tracks the cross-country train trip/tour taken in spring 2011 by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Mumford & Sons, and Old Crow Medicine Show. Basically, a bunch of hippies got on a train, celebrated togetherness, and didn’t shower for a week. “We’re going to play some music across the country,” explains Edward Sharpe’s dynamic frontman Alex Ebert in the trailer. “The way they saw it more than 100 years ago. Back into the magic.” I worried my eyes would never stop rolling.
But on a recent super cold evening, as I made my way in holiday party attire up the tiny staircase off Prince to the Gallery’s cozy loft space and found a spot in the back, something good, something warm, started to take over. It might have been the free-flowing Bushmill’s or the general sense of good seasonal cheer. A mixture of in-the-know film folk and musicians wearing bespoke denim were sitting in folding chairs, surrounded by holiday decorations, like a bunch of parents at a cool Brooklyn magnet school’s holiday pageant. An adorable black pitbull — the Gallery’s house dog — made the rounds, accepting scratches behind the ears and snacks. But I suspect my good mood, which washed over me like some kind of celestial energy transfusion, may also have had to do with the fact that the artists I was seeing on screen are willfully full of love and genuinely committed to transmitting that love through music.
Earlier this year I spent some time with Alex Ebert for a feature I was writing. After seeing the Zeros play live a few times I was struck by the way his fans related to him. Dark, dark souls would emerge post-show every night eager to tell him what hell his music had delivered them from. You’ll see giggling fans at any semi-successful artists show. But what struck me about the Ebert fans was that they didn’t look the part. So many of them were grown up men, bros, really, with real jobs and pickup trucks and sad stories to tell about struggle and heartache. You’d think they were talking to about Bruce Springsteen songs the way they teared up name-checking Zeros tracks like “Man On Fire” or “Home,” or, very often, “Truth,” off Ebert’s solo album. I thought about that, and about a point the actress Olivia Wilde, a big Zeroes/Ebert fan made when I asked her about it at the time. “It’s not escapism because it’s acknowledging the struggles of death and heartbreak and all these real life issues,” she said of the Zeros music. “Beauty is optimism in pessimistic times.” Or, as I’m thinking about it these days, beauty is insisting on sincerity when irony would be easier.