As a child, I was deeply affected by an Andy Warhol painting I saw at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. The six-foot square canvas had a wall to itself in the contemporary wing, was painted in a smooth, even coat of red, and that was it. Just a red square entitled “Red.” My first reaction was, “Jeez, what a bunch of artsy-shmoozy postmodern bullshit. If I painted that picture (entirely possible) and tried to hang it at the MFA, they would scoff me into the Charles River.” But looking back, I can appreciate something. There is art in there, but on a different scale. The art is in the ability of the artist to finesse and wield the absurdity of “artsy-shmoozy postmodern bullshit” and make a venerable institution hang such a silly piece of work on their gallery wall, while patrons who haven’t yet whored their aesthetic values can only “see red.”
So too do I appreciate the artistic career of John Gorka—but for diametrically opposite reasons. He’s been “John Gorka, singer, songwriter, folk guy” long enough that you can look at his career from a distance and see its form. Backstage in contemporary folk circles, the phrase “A John Gorka career” has come to mean, “the middle path” of artistic success: not too hot to burn out quickly, but warm enough to keep you from wanting more, especially if what you wanted most was to play music and not take a second job to support the habit.
Gorka’s modest approach is altogether spectacular when you consider his talent: a relaxed, burnished baritone delivery that’s as smooth as chocolate silk and delivers lyrics which cut like fine wine through the thick cheese coating your nerve receptors. Like John Prine, Bob Dylan or Greg Brown, Gorka says it differently, and he says it elegantly, and he says it perfectly. He could rule Nashville if he wanted to—Garth Brooks eat your heart out—and there are plenty of people who’d love to pimp Gorka around that town if he only would.
Gorka’s old label, High Street, started to go there, and Gorka said seeee ya. He also said: “They started to want to mess with how I looked. They wanted to pick the songs and the producers, and it was based more on who the hot artist or producer of the moment was than on my music. They said if you want to reach more people, you’re going to have to either go more rock or more country. Then they changed that to thinking about the adult contemporary market. It started feeling like they were more concerned about how my hair looked than what my music was like.”
My friend AlleyMon falls asleep quicker to “singer, songwriter, folk guys” then he does with a glass full of warm milk. And he claims to not “get” poetry. But after hearing some Gorka wafting out my window, AlleyMon was beaming exuberance. “That sounds real nice,” he said. “His lyrics are right on.”
Dig the following lyric as an example of what I’m talking about (keeping in mind that Jack Kerouac once labored on a crew that worked on the Pentagon): I was born by a Kerouac stream, under Eisenhower skies. They saw freedom as a big idea, now it was right before my eyes. They said Jack helped build the Pentagon, and Ike built the interstate that we are off and on.
Speaking of which, my truck was stolen from the parking lot across from the Blue Heron at the Gourds show last February, and for weeks I was haunted by Gorka’s car-theft tune, especially the line There’s a stranger in my driver’s seat. Somehow, I was comforted by that affiliation. As a writer, I too seek the “middle path” in terms of artistic success—New York City eat your heart out. So it was good to know that losing his wheels didn’t stop John Gorka from rolling into a “John Gorka career.” And when Gorka plays the Heron this Friday the 13th, I think I’ll ride my bike—despite Gorka’s assurance that Work brings more luck than knocking on wood. Because he also claims Nothing comes to those who wait...good things come to those who ain’t. Oh, I could go on. I just hope he plays “Raven in the Storm” on that fateful Friday. Gorka has earned the right to sing about ravens.