THE HARDING DEFENSE John Wesley Harding

The rocker, mocker, auteur and author hears The Sound of His Own Voice. We’re listening, too. Currently on tour – dates at his website.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

“Renaissance Man” is the most
awful of phrases in the pop cultural lexicon, one so overused and worn out in
its appliance to anyone that does more than one thing you could see through the
tired term’s tattered hide. Unless it’s reserved for
author/educator/emcee/singer/composer/wise ass John Wesley Harding. Then it’s
fine.

 

“I think that standards have
dropped,” laughs Harding, when asked how he feels about that phrase being
applied to his multiple layers. “Technically, the hallmark of a Renaissance Man
is that the expanse of knowledge covers more than one field-science, math,
gardening etc. My expanse of knowledge is devoted to one field: “I’m in
the Arts.” But, y’know: it’s flattering. Thanks to anyone who says it. I’d
rather be a Renaissance Man than a Medieval Man or a Risorgimento Man.”

 

Harding, currently readying his
smartly literary tortured new epic The
Sound of His Own Voice
, has spent most of the last twelve months tending to
other aspects of his reach (and the other name he goes by, Wesley Stace) the
most prominent being his recent novel, the opera-based critic lambasting Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer Rather than write about Pop, Harding/Stace wanted to write about the
Nationalist movement in English music, and with opera being that moment’s
favored sound, the author wrote of that musical form’s melodrama. That he chose
to make a music critic, the dry witted Leslie Shepherd, respected and noble so
to narrate this wicked tale, is funnier still.

 

“I needed someone who could be the
advocate/patron of a composer – and the critic/artist relationship looked
suggestive for that,” states Harding. “Shepherd was around when music criticism
was not the high art it is today: his sole qualification is wealth, a seat at
the opera and his wife, who happens to be the press baron’s daughter. He’s not
an awfully good critic. His talents lie in other fields, as the reader will
find out.” Mention that the murder novel has such a genuine rhythmic musical
lilt and Harding says that he doesn’t see it as a murder novel, but as a music
novel with a murder in it. “I appreciate the implied compliment as I wanted Jessold to be structured like an opera.
Surely making anything more musical is probably a good thing.”

Making something/anything more musical was and is the goal of his series of
“Cabinet of Wonders” variety shows at NYC’s City Winery, where the
likes of comedians and whimsical musicians fall under host Harding’s commands
for self-revelation and imagination. “I set the shows up, but once they get
going, it’s like watching a snowball rolling down a hill,” says Harding. “I am
rarely happier than when doing a Cabinet of Wonders.” No wonder what with the
likes of comics Eugene Mirman (who has done all but one show) and Todd Barry
joining forces with Andrew Bird, Tift Merritt, Eleanor Friedberger, Andrew
VanWyngarden, Tony Visconti, MGMT, and Dan Zanes in his midst/mitts. “Tony
Visconti told the audience about the making of T. Rex’s “Hot Love” and then
picked up the bass and played while Andrew and I sang it with the band, with
Dan Zanes on spoon-I mean, that doesn’t happen by magic, but I like to make it
look like it does.”

 

Magically, too, Harding is an
artist-in-residence at Fairleigh
Dickinson University
wherein he designs his own course which allows him an excuse to talk for
fourteen weeks about his favorite first chapters in his favorite fourteen
novels, with the hopes of inspiring creative writing students to write a
fantastic first chapter all of their own. “I have absolutely no qualification
to do this, besides enthusiasm, liking books a lot, and being the author of a
couple,” says Harding. “I’m hoping to handle the classes a bit like John
Houseman in The Paper Chase, but also
remember everybody’s name.”

 

 

 

This semester also sees Harding doing
what he does most formidably, making theatrical wordy takes of terror, loves
and silliness such as The Sound of His
Own Voice
, cut mostly in Portland with Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck and
members of the Decemberists (whose 2009 “Lottery Show” in NYC Harding had
MC’d). “I asked all of them if they’d like to have some fun in a studio, they
said yes, the backing tracks were recorded in three days and they were the most
joyful sessions I’ve been involved with,” says Harding in one breath. “A band
playing well-thought-out arrangements live with really very few overdubs – it’s
a thrill to take this band on the road in November.” While “Sing Your Own Song”
is a pivotal number as it represents the crossover between everything he’s
written up to it, and everything he’ll write after, “There’s a Starbucks
(Where the Starbucks Used to Be)” pokes sinister fun at the delicious
coffee corporation. “The irony is: I’m a fairly regular Starbucks user. It
could equally be about Barnes and Noble or The Gap or Whatever. The song is
about progress, gentrification and the sameness of Mall Culture.”

Lastly as a published author, recording artist, and an MC/variety show host,
given the current economic climate, what potential viable career alternatives
does he see for struggling young musicians unsure whether or not they really
should stick with the music making… or variety show hosts for that matter?

 

“It’s the same as always, really –
school or hustling,” he says with a smiling sigh.

 

Maybe you could take one of his
classes.

 

 

A version of this
story appears in BLURT print edition #10. John Wesley Harding & The King
Charles Trio plus Thee Minus Five – Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, and members of
the Decemberists (Jenny Conlee-Drizos, Chris Funk, John Moen, Nate Query) –  will be on tour through November 20. Check
tour dates at JWH’s official website.

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