There’s a pejorative edge to the idea that someone is obsessive. I’ve always had that a bit and as a child it confused and worried me. People do get concerned, and what can happen is that you end up doing what you do sort of in secret, or you feel guilty about it, or you affect a sense of ironic detachment so as not to worry them. My life has traced a careful trajectory through that sort of thing; I do worry about it far less than I used to, but it’s always there in the back of your mind.
So why I am I thinking about this, and what does it have to do with Sproutology? Well two reasons. Firstly in the Zorrophonic archive I recently obsessively preserved for posterity, there’s a very nice post by Stewart Gregg, Sprout obsessive of the first rank, on the nature of obsession and how far it’s reasonable to go, and I was reading this and nodding sagely to myself.
And also because I just found a book on Dylanologists (by David Kinney), and it struck a few chords. Well it struck whole chordal symphonies actually, with beautifully realised counterpoint and hidden bonus tracks. After all, this site is named Sproutology as an ironic tribute to A. J. Weberman, famously beaten up by his hero for digging in Dylan’s trash looking for evidence of conspiracy to blunt Dylan’s subversion, and I recognize where fan obsession can lead if not kept under some sort of restraint: I often wonder what I’d do if given the opportunity to root through Paddy’s recycling bin, and I don’t entirely trust myself.
But anyway you can’t change how you see the world, and how what interests you affects how you behave towards it. For me, my obsessive nature has always driven what I do: I’m looking to go deep and hard, to find out everything I can, and then to be the best at whatever it is I do. Or if not the best, to at least meet my own standards, which are brutally uncompromising. I’m never going to be as skilled as Calum Malcolm, but if I remaster an old recording I’m going to get as close as I can to what he can do. I’m going to find the best sources and the best tools and do the best I possibly can with them. If I fall short, no amount of reassurance will help me. I just know. And it bothers and depresses me.
There is also a perpetual urge to do something connected to the obsession. If you don’t feed it, a sort of anxiety builds up. It’s like an addiction, it really is. So it is that I’m spending my free time this holiday collecting together fanzines and online traces of the Prefab Sprout fan community. If I hadn’t something to do that was Sprout related I’d get irritable and eventually listless and grumpy. That or something like it has been part of my life for as long as I can remember.
“Tinkering in the Shed” is how I refer to this sort of activity. It’s in memory of my father, and indeed many of his friends, and my friends come to that, because they spent their spare time doing precisely that. I don’t quite have a shed in this sense, but such sheds do exist in a tangible form, and the tinkering takes the form of fixing things – motorbikes, cars and so on – or making model railways, or matchstick buildings or an infinite variety of other things.
For those of us with a real or metaphorical shed, it’s not so much the act of completing a project that is important – in many cases the project may never be complete – it’s the release it gives us when we go into it and concentrate our minds and skills completely on whatever it is we want to identify ourselves with. It’s mainlining a peculiar sort of drug that brings balm to the agitated impulse to create, that itch that allows us to express our true nature by bringing form to the void. From an external point of view what we do may seem useless or downright peculiar, but it makes perfect sense to us, and we’d be lost without it. Completely lost.
I guess it’s pretty obvious where I’m going with this. Because I’m certain this is how Paddy feels about songwriting. Now the danger is of course that I’m myself simply some sort of A. J. Weberman character and I’m overlaying elements of my own personality over that of someone I admire for reasons of self aggrandisement, but I really don’t think I am. Why? Because I’ve read what Paddy says about how he feels when he’s taken away from songwriting for even a couple of days, and I completely understand that gnawing desire to get back to it. I have a different context, but I understand exactly how it feels. It’s a fevered feeling in the forehead and tenseness in the jaw. It’s just like an untended addiction.
And that’s why it’s so difficult to get finished product out of him. As I’ve discussed previously, what goes down on tape inevitably falls short of the work as it was conceived in the initial creative spark, and so bothers and embarrasses him. He’s reaching for something unattainable and so he prefers to keep his work incomplete on shelves in his shed, because only that which remains unfinished can still attain perfection.
But most of all, from the moment he resolves to complete something, the creative drive that soothes his obsession is missing its outlet: he’s into the nitty gritty of application and technique and fighting the demons of imperfection, inch by inch, atom by atom, until fatigue or the clock ends the fight and a compromise slips away through the net as a perpetual memorial to the unequal battle.
So Andromeda Heights is Paddy’s shed, and his back catalogue is his model engineering, just waiting for the finishing touches that will allow them to attain perfection. We’re just fortunate that from time to time he’s persuaded to let something slip out.
And we return to Stewart’s point, which was about the effect of obsessive criticism getting back to the artist and discouraging him. Nothing more corrosive to any impulse to create completed work than the amplification of self doubt, when self doubt is already deeply engrained in the soul. The irony here being that it’s the obsessive fans who are discourage the obsessive creator, because each is searching for something different.