His name was Johnny Virgil… : Kevin Gilbert’s “The Shaming of the True.” A Review, and Response: Part 2
Note: It took me a long time to finish this. I sincerely hope this isn’t a portent of how often I’ll be able to update this blog, but I fear it may be. That’s ok, I suppose. I have full time responsibilities outside of this that frequently take priority. The needs of the others, outweigh my own personal needs, always. Anyway, on with part two, and the conclusion of this review and response.
When the opening notes of a concept album, or any composition, are dissonant, the composer is trying to convey a feeling. This is easy to see. It’s no different with the opening notes of this album. But how do we interpret this opening unsettling sound, this ear disturbing mismatch of tones, as it slowly congeals together into a pleasant chord? What is the composer doing here? Are we, as the listener, drifting from dissonance, that is to say, disorder, chaos, feelings of being adrift and lost, into something more pleasant and ordered, supposed to use these auditory signals as an allegory for something that is to come later in the piece? I believe so. Our hero, the central character in this opera, Johnny Virgil, is an aspiring singer, songwriter, rock star…at least that’s where his heart is…he has desires of greatness, he has a song in his heart and he wants to share it. The lyrics clearly say he’s been listening to Dylan, he’s been listening to the Dead. A parade of people who have come before him, who he venerates, these are the saints of the past, guiding the devotees of the present, in to the future. These are some of his influences, and he’s found a path down which he wants the saints above to help him walk, and it brings him something pleasant, ordered, a chord of existence for which he was searching for during the chaos of dissonant notes just moments ago. He has decided what he wants to do.
As he traverses this path, he comes across someone who has already been down this path, and returned to the nothing from which they came.
The attendant at the Texaco saw the guitar case in my back seat
And decided to impart his tragic tale
He said: “I used to play in a band like you
We even made a record too”
And sang a bar that hardly rang a bell
He doesn’t want to see this as an omen or a portent of his own future, he looks away, tries to disengage in, he wants to go to the city of the sun, in this case, Sun Studios comes to mind. Musicians have their holy places, as many orders to. Sun Studios is one such place, Abbey Road another, Tupelo Mississippi yet another, and so it goes, as someone else once said.
From this place of uneasy hope, our hero, Johnny Virgil, has a series of adventures both amazing, and disturbing. The song Suit Fugue (Dance of the A&R Men), is a musical piece of genius, in this reviewer’s humble opinion. In round form, voices of these marketeers bespeaks the amazing things that are in store for Virgil, the lights, the money, the women. This schmoozing, is all almost too much for him. He tries to maintain his autonomy, until these front men convince him that he is the focus of their pocketbooks, their priority, and hand him over to the image makers in the industry, who create, through him, a character that can be packaged, marketed, and sold to the masses…and then the video…the music video. Remember?
Some time in the late 90s, MTV stopped being Music Television, I think, in favor of some sort of Lifestyles of the young X’ers on the West Coast station. My generation. We were the generation of the transition between traditional music industry, and this new whatever industry it is now. During the 90s, we watched the decline of MTV, bemoaned it…but did nothing about it, save get more piercings and tats…or focus on our internet start-up job in the brick-walled loft we called an office. But the “industry,” that machine that pooped out music for us to consume, was changing, and we barely noticed. But that’s all gone now, water under the bridge, where we kept our porn magazines, before we could just see it online for free, without worrying about being found out. Those were our plans, those were our halcyon days, after Lewinsky, and before the tech-bust of the early 21st century. Those were the days of our best laid plans.
Virgil’s plan went awry, as so many do, as so many of ours did. One day you’re dreaming of pursuing a dream, a decade later, you’re still dreaming, but as a wage slave to your accidental career, just trying to make ends meet, while engaging in the fringes of what would have been your dream career, from your armchair, or as a gas station attendant. Virgil lead his life almost like you did. He was in front of crowds of screaming fans, loving fans, fawning fans. Singing his songs, grinding his hips, owning the stage, with the excitement of a black gospel choir, sweat dripping off him, fervor of dedication to music and energy, sending it all to the crowd, who injects the experience like a drug. This is the high point in the arc of our hero’s story…then comes the drop.
He becomes empty, surrounded by smug name-dropping psuedo-art types of dubious intellect. The drugs flow, the parties are nonstop, he lives in a constant state of altered mind and consciousness, until he is a shell. He becomes as empty as a Ken doll on the shelf. He delivers what people want, what they need, and he is alone. Somewhere along this dark corridor, he hears the tiny sound of his own mind, screaming in it’s tiny way, for release, for reality again. He searches the emptiness within himself and tries to find his way back home, home now being his own self, who he wanted to be, who he wishes he was, who he thought he was going to become but for the redirection of others. During this transition, he has to destroy the person he’s become, and becomes the archetypal bad-boy rock star.
Still, he knows he’s talented, while at the same time being used by others to line their pockets. He’s a tool, nothing but a product. So aptly put in this bit in the song “A Long Day’s Life,” toward the end of the album:
Three nights running now I’ve had the most unusual and disturbing dream, where I’m a 19th century French painter with a pallet and paint brush and beret and an ill-fitting black suite and I’m painting perfectly rectangular white lines on an endless snaking desert highway and people are yelling at me “you missed a spot.”
He wanted to be so much more, but this is what he’s become. He had…still has…so much potential and talent, but his drive is gone, his will is broken, his love for his dream is lost. It’s the end of all this now, he’s slipping into nothingness, obscurity, sliding down, letting the water close over his head and breathing in the cool liquid of nothingness. He’s lost his way, he’s at the end of his days.
Just as we think the end has come for Johnny, we find that he is a survivor of sorts. He moves on, he is crucified by the industry, and rises again, but he realizes that we are all prisoners of apathy and fear, and we’ve lost the way back home. All of us, each of us is drifting though this life only to find that there are no simple solutions, no last judgement day, there is only the trying, the journey, the way to our homes. That home is our peace, our comfort, a place we’ve found where we are as we want to be, a place where we can be who we are, express what is inside of us in whatever way we need.
This ending is melancholy, true. Johnny’s last song is in his own mind, contemplative, and mournful in a hopeful sort of way. He has traveled this road, left a mark on the world, and faded into obscurity. The last track on this album, it is said, was recorded in one take, on the back porch of the studio, real rain, and the serendipitous sound of the train…it wasn’t planned, the universe just aligned that way, at that moment, for the mother of all endings…the train is the world moving on without Johnny, the rain is rejuvenating and calming, as he slips back into nothingness, having completed a real life bildungsroman, in secret.
As can be seen, I connect with this album, for whatever reason. Truth be told, I connect with alot of albums I listen to, but really, none like this one. There’s something deeply personal about it, for me. Maybe I’m still in the middle of my own personal bildungsroman, or maybe my story is still unfolding. I do know that I sometimes chase dreams, though others may find my chasing useless. Something in me keeps me driving, hesitatingly, forward, nonetheless. Perhaps one of these fits and starts, will lead me to an ending of my own.