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Their Aim Is Just Off

We all have our people: writers or singers or actors or comedians who shaped us and sustained us and to whom we remain loyal, because to forget them would be to forget ourselves (our sixteen-year-old selves, our twenty-two-year-old selves). A few nights ago I saw one of my people, Elvis Costello, play a solo show at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater. Or rather, he tried to play a solo show. Battling a cold and a wrecked throat, he apologized and walked off stage after three songs. Then he came back out (encouraged by the show’s promoter, it appeared), played another handful-plus of songs, promised us our money back, and left for good after fifty minutes. I’m sure most of the audience was disappointed in the performance. But I kind of liked it.

I liked it because I always want things to go a bit wrong. I like the song that has to be restarted, the joke that has to be retold. Listen as a different Elvis interrupts the start of “Milkcow Blues Boogie” with “Hold it, fellas. That don’t move me. Let’s get real, real gone for a change.” Watch as Norm Macdonald tells a really long moth joke.

My favorite moment in The Cantos comes near the end, when, after fifty-plus years of working on the poem, Pound writes, “I cannot make it cohere.” My favorite moment in David Kirby’s “Scarlet Ribbons” also comes near the end: “Whoops, wrong poem!” (Asked to judge a poetry contest a decade ago, I awarded Kirby the grand prize for lighting my brain on fire with this line.)

Whoops, wrong night to schedule a concert! That’s okay; keep the surprises coming. Conclude a thousand-page novel with an elliptical non-ending. Record a song in which your own band heckles you. Break character while telling a banana joke. Quit your comedy show and travel to South Africa.

The night after the Costello washout, I saw Lily Tomlin perform stand-up at the University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium. The jokes felt, at times, tired; the Q & A felt thrilling. What a treat, to be near Tomlin’s brain as it whirred and clicked! She didn’t know what was coming next, and neither did we. At one point she read a question, paused, stared down the audience, and then flipped to the next card. Her silence was part comic offering, part threat.

This essay hasn’t gone where I thought it would. I wanted to write more about interruptions—the planned-for interruptions found in Berryman’s Dream Songs, the unplanned-for interruptions collected on a blooper reel. I wanted to connect the whole thing to my nervousness about art that’s a little too well wrought. And I wanted to introduce the idea that we forgive our heroes almost anything, so long as we’re convinced of their genius. But as Declan MacManus (using his stage name) famously demonstrated back in 1977, we don’t always do what we set out to do.