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Bach, Tom Waits, and the One Hit Wonder

May 11, 2009

Sometimes, I think that if I could just write one piece of music as gorgeous as Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir Klagen or a song as wonderful as Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis, I would be content for the rest of my life.

Usually, my next thought is “I can’t do that.”

But then I wonder about whether anyone can write just one piece on that level. I tend to think that the general answer is ‘no’. After all, the St. Matthew Passion (and much of the rest of Bach’s oeuvre) is full of gorgeous near-perfect music, and Tom Waits has churned out consistently brilliant albums for decades.

So my question is – can anyone think of an artist whose output is mediocre, save for one masterpiece for the ages?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. richard Goldwater MD permalink
    May 11, 2009 4:59 pm

    Wish I could help you – it would be nice to imagine that the rest of us still have a chance to produce “greatness”. There have been one hit wonders in various fields, but I don’t know of anyone mediocre who just once hit a tape-measure home run, while otherwise batting .200. (There was Bucky Dent, of course, but that does not count). Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff was for many by far his greatest work, but almost everything else he did was no less than immortal. Then there was Patrick Dennis’ only interesting novel, “Auntie Mame”.

  2. David permalink
    May 11, 2009 5:06 pm

    In baseball:

    Chuck Lindstrom
    Lindstrom, a catcher, played only one game in the Majors, the final White Sox contest of the season. But what a game it was. Lindstrom, the son of New York Giants Hall of Famer Freddie Lindstrom, tripled and walked in his two plate appearances, for a 1.000 batting average, a 1.000 OBP, and a major league record 3.000 slugging percentage. He also scored a run and batted in another. Lindstrom was sent back down to the minors the next season, and soon realized his career wasn’t going anywhere. He retired and went on to coach for Lincoln College for 23 years. “I just didn’t have the mental toughness for pro ball,” he says in “Once Around the Bases,” by Richard Tellis.

    Mark Fidrych
    The ultimate one-hit wonder crafted a single, scintillating masterpiece season in 1976 with the Tigers, filling both home and away stadiums with his pitching prowess and zany mound antics. Fidrych went 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA in his only complete Major League season, before succumbing to arm problems and going only 10-10 in the final four years of his career. Besides his prowess, there was, well, the other stuff.

    William Barry Furling profiled the pitcher in the Aug 22, 1976 issue of the New York Times Magazine: “Mark Fidrych did catch the public imagination suddenly this summer when, in the course of defeating the New York Yankees, 5 to 1, he was observed indulging in an idiosyncrasy that might get other men committed: He was talking to his baseball.” What he told it was direct, pithy, and obscene (Mark has a distinct language problem). ‘F—— way to flow! Now ya gotta go outside, ya motha——. Outside!’ That is a fairly accurate representation of what he says to the ball. What the ball says back is a matter of conjecture to everyone but Mark. ‘When it goes over the fence, it yells, ‘”Ya shouldn’a thrown that pitch,”‘ he says.”

    Furling captured what still enthralls us about The Bird more than 25 years after his star faded. “Fidrych is more than a fad. He is an experience — existential, romantic. He is almost an act of faith in an age of doubt, a happy display of innocence in a time of cunning.”

    Those two were courtesy of

    In music:

    Sugar Hill Gang: Rapper’s Delight

    Dexy’s Midnight Runners: Come on Eileen

  3. David permalink
    May 11, 2009 5:08 pm

    Mark Fidrych is also the ex-player who died on the same day as Harry Kalas, when a truck he was working on collapsed.

  4. Jojo permalink
    May 11, 2009 6:33 pm

    When I attended Rich Gedman baseball camp, Fidrych came to talk to us kids. Also, Bob Stanley was there. As we sat in a field being regaled by Stanley, Fidrych drove away in his truck, on a road a couple hundred feet from where we sat. Stanley couldn’t resist, and threw a ball at Fidrych’s truck! He missed.

  5. Aleksei permalink
    May 11, 2009 6:50 pm

    I haven’t yet given this too much thought, but so far I’m also unable to think of an example.

    I read once about different types of genius, one being explosive and the other being experimental. The former is what we commonly think of as a genius, someone who’s precocious, at the head of his class, has achieved a greatness by age 25 that virtually no one ever achieves. They are usually famous in their own time, even if their genius is not fully appreciated until afterwards. These are your Mozarts, your Boulezes.

    The other type of genius the author identified is the experimental genius. These artists are tinkerers. They spend a long time – decades, sometimes an entire lifetime – working out their ideas, and if they have any kind of spectacular successes, they come much later in their lives. These are your Iveses, your Feldmans.

    I grant that this is an oversimplification. If anything, explosive and experimental are the ends of a spectrum, not sides of a coin.

    But if there was someone who met the criteria you’re talking about, I’d bet they’d come from somewhere closer to the experimental end of the spectrum.

  6. Barry permalink
    May 11, 2009 6:53 pm

    If Alek and Richard can’t come up with anything, this question could be answered. In the case of musical greatness, it is not luck.

  7. David permalink
    May 11, 2009 6:55 pm

    Nothing about “Come on Eileen” was based on luck. That was just pure, sweet, butter. Top shelf.

  8. Tyler permalink
    May 11, 2009 7:05 pm

    This is probably obvious, but John Lennon (as a solo artist) with “Imagine.”

    Everything else he did solo swerved between two extremes of wretched discomfort (for me as a listener): music as therapy and music as love note. On the one hand, we hear him inflicting his cathartic experiences upon us as the tape rolled. The effect is one interminably long whine. On the other hand, we have “Oh Yoko” which makes me want to strangle small furry animals just to restore a sense of balance.

    I’d like to think if Lennon had lived, his muse (for the sake of all that is morally upright and true, NOT Yoko) would have returned.

  9. Barry permalink
    May 11, 2009 7:15 pm

    Interesting, Tyler. I certainly hadn’t thought of that. I think a lot of what you’ve said about his solo career is right on.

  10. Sarah permalink
    May 11, 2009 10:52 pm

    For some reason Sylvester Stallone in Copland comes to mind. A career of mediocre (yes, Rocky is excellent, but not necessarily due to great acting) and then a beautiful quiet performance. Now, whether it rises to the level of Bach, I wouldn’t dare to say, but surprising nonetheless.

  11. Sarah permalink
    May 11, 2009 10:52 pm

    For some reason Sylvester Stallone in Copland comes to mind. A career of mediocre (yes, Rocky is excellent, but not necessarily due to great acting) and then a beautiful quiet performance. Now, whether it rises to the level of Bach, I wouldn’t dare to say, but surprising nonetheless.

  12. John permalink
    May 12, 2009 8:49 pm

    In literature, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind.

    She’s never written anything else.

  13. MonkeyHawk permalink
    May 13, 2009 7:53 am

    I always kinda liked the 1960s record, “Elusive Butterfly,” by Bob Lind.

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