When New York Times writer David Carr died this week, we all lost a unique individual and writer we won’t see the likes of for a long time. Why? Because of that word “unique.” The Times has tons of writers around the world but not a single one like David Carr. His experiences as a cocaine addict, a cancer survivor, and the psychic pain of temporarily losing his twin daughters to foster care — those are experiences he alone had and you cannot manufacture them. They made him a fascinating writer and, even if he did not reference those experiences in every column, they informed who he was.
At the risk of stating the obvious, we’re all the sum total of our experiences and those experiences make us who we are. Later on, you cannot relive your life to make it more interesting. Scratch a great artist or person — someone truly unique — and you generally find a man or woman who’s either had hardship in their young lives or who chose a path early on that in itself was different than everyone around them.
Something Bob Dylan said in his recent MusicCares speech really stuck with me (partly because I’ve just finished reading his autobiography “Chronicles”). Dylan said his songs didn’t come out of nowhere:
“If you had sung that song [‘John Henry’] as many times as I did, you’d have written ‘How many roads must a man walk down?’ too.”
That’s the point right there! Lots of people want to be Dylan but only Dylan lived and breathed folk music like he did. He had one focus early on in his life — folk music and Woody Guthrie and long before the Internet, Dylan figured out where Woody was dying in a New Jersey Hospital and spent tons of time there talking to a true American legend. Dylan came to New York with nothing and didn’t expect the world to give him anything — he sought out the folk singers he admired like Dave Van Ronk and wheedled his way into their lives until he was performing next to them and, in Van Ronk’s case, sleeping on the guitarist’s sofa. Dylan was not looking around for a bloody internship!! He was living life and often fell asleep with a guitar in his hands.
It’s like that with a lot of great artists. I’ve read about people wanting to clone John Lennon from his DNA. It doesn’t matter if you have Lennon’s DNA — you can’t have his experiences! Lennon already has two sons out there and neither of them can touch their father because neither was raised like he was — in the shipping port of Liverpool with parents who abandoned him early on. Neither of them met Paul McCartney as a teenager.
The great writer Richard Price has a new novel out using Harry Brandt as a pseudonym but as one reviewer pointed out, Price cannot sound like any other writer than Richard Price. Even Price said he realized that he only knew how to write one way. And how does Richard Price sound? Like a guy born with a bum right arm who was raised in the Bronx projects. That’s how. Others can try to find that authenticity but only Price has it. If you don’t think being a kid in the projects with a shitty right arm makes you different then you don’t know anything.
That’s just the way life is. Edith Piaf sang like she did because she was raised in a bordello and sang on the streets, literally for her supper when she was a little girl. Can you hear that in her voice? I can.
The great CBS Correspondent and writer Bob Simon saw life the way he did because he knew first-hand was it was like to be held captive for 40 days and nights by enemies who hung him from the ceiling and thought about killing him. Simon knew that life was fragile and precious.
And finally and sadly, that brings me to Brian Williams, a nice guy who was raised in a small town upstate to a middle class family. Early on in his TV career, Williams — because of his looks and pleasing personality — was tapped to be an anchorman in the movie sense of the word. I think Williams wanted something less vanilla for himself, more unique! And I believe that’s why he began inserting himself in dramatic stories — his chopper was shot down, he was there when the Berlin Wall fell, he met the Pope, he rode with Seal Team Six — all Forrest Gump-like tales that are now coming under fire.
Did Brian believe them? Probably not but they made good stories and I’ll bet anything that he believed the stories made him unique, they gave him credibility, they made him something other than plain old Mr. Vanilla. Except it doesn’t work that way Brian. You should have been happy with the $10 million a year NBC was giving you for being a pleasant enough chap. Instead, as Paul McCartney once wrote of John Lennon, you took your lucky break and broke it in two.