Saturday, October 23, 2010

Mona Lisa

Today I did something I have never done before: I went to the Louvre and saw Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa in person.

I was prepared to be underwhelmed. My mom had seen it back when it did a U.S. tour in the early '60s --compliments of First Lady Jackie Kennedy -- and basically told me that it was a huge crowd standing around a tiny painting. But as a painting major who had only ever seen one da Vinci in person (that pale girl in the National Gallery, a.k.a. The Only da Vinci Painting in the Western Hemisphere), I figured I owed it to him and myself to see as much as I could. God knows I've spent enough time looking at his work. But then again, so would anyone else who gives themselves a month to paint a Last Supper of the United States presidents.

But I digress. The Louvre was every bit big and elegant as I figured it would be -- the obvious model for things like the Met in New York and, perhaps, the MFA in Boston. But there amongst its stately walls and grayed frescos were what looked like cheap xeroxed images of the Mona Lisa, with a no words or explanation except for an arrow under the image to let tourists such as myself know that we were on the right track. The entire rise of Western Art whizzed before me -- some Giotto here, some Botticelli there, now they are shading a bit, now they are figuring out perspective -- as I glanced at countless priceless masterpieces just to get to the centerpiece of the Western canon of art.

I saw it as I peered into a huge room filled with hundreds of people. There it was, towards the back, a painting that was at once overfamiliar and yet had an unexplainable mysterious power. The only thing that came close to this experience was when I saw Michelangelo's "David" in Italy; there was this bizarre mix of the ordinary and extraordinary -- oh, there's that huge icon of humanity, and it's right in that room over there.

I was singing Carl Mann's "Mona Lisa" to myself as I hurried up to it, a rock and roll cover of the Nat King Cole standard that became a surprise final-gasp hit for the legendary Sun Records when it reached #25 on the pop charts in 1959. By then, the magic was gone, as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins had long since left Sun for greener pastures; the only legend who stuck around was Jerry Lee Lewis, but that was more because he had nowhere else to go after destroying his career the previous year by marrying his second-cousin teenage bride.

Mann's "Mona Lisa" has always been dumped on by Sun purists, and probably for good reason -- this was rockabilly only in the loosest sense, as Phillips now watered down his label's sound with back up singers and rollicking rhythms to try and reach maximum commercial potential. It was a sad ending: Sun Records had become so influential in the first place by bucking the trends and doing what no other label would do, and now, only a few years into the revolution, it was already admitting defeat by following the music trends. It's sorta like remembering that less than ten years after declaring themselves "The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World," the Rolling Stones tried their damnedest to make straight-faced disco music.

But I've always had a place in my heart for Carl Mann's record. He sings it with all of the dangerousness of Pat Boone rehearsing Little Richard songs in the bathroom mirror, seemingly swinging one arm that snaps its fingers to the beat like he was a post-Elvis teenage pretender on the Dick Clark show, making the teenage girls all swoon and scream until the next wanna-be idol comes down the pop music assembly line. But I hear something in Mann's song -- maybe it's an earnestness, maybe it's a deep comprehension of the lyrics, maybe it's just a kid who knows that this shot is his only shot -- but he swings it with an odd cocky confidence, riding the line about the smile possibly hiding a broken "hear-a-ar-a-ar-a-ar-eart" down with an awkward grace that pops out from the otherwise cookie-cutter studio musicians backing him.

Or perhaps it is simply because, for a brief moment, Carl Mann was able to do something that Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Billy Lee Riley, and scores of others were unable to before and after him: Have a Top 40 hit on Sun Records. I remember hearing the song in Colony Music just north of Times Square, with its faded signed photographs and overpriced back catalogue CDs, as though no one had actually thought to look at the store's wares since 1992, and recognizing what it was in my head right before I heard a couple of old guys swapping stories about it. Yep, it was Carl Mann, I got the original 45 of it at home. No kidding? I don't know if I ever heard this one. Well, if memory serves, that person was in for a treat as, for the first time, I heard Mann's other singles from Sun, almost all of which were rocked-up '40s standards that tried in vain to match the fluke success of "Mona Lisa." And, as I confirmed when I downloaded a batch of them earlier this year, they were all awful.

But then again, so was "Mona Lisa." But hearing it that day in Colony, it sounded wonderfully awful, no backwoods brilliance of hillbilly headed uptown of an Elvis or a Johnny Cash, only a kid singing the blues, sort of -- a white kid singing a black man's pop song, in the style of a white kid's version of a black man's blues music. And unlike Elvis or Johnny Cash (or Roy Orbison or Carl Perkins or Billy Lee Riley for that matter), Carl Mann is still alive and with us; sometimes I wonder if Jerry Lee Lewis (who seems as though he will never die) stays alive for the sole purpose of making sure Carl Mann is not the last hit Sun artist to be left standing. But unlike Jerry Lee, Carl Mann is not a legend -- as a "last man standing" or otherwise -- in fact, I don't believe he performs much anymore. His hit was his career -- dismissed by rockabilly purists yet still discussed by old guys at record stores, and just catchy enough to run into my mind as I approached the real "Mona Lisa."

As I knew I would, I had to push my way through several rows of tourists who were gathered behind the half-circle of velvet ropes like a bunch of lepers waiting to touch a shaman. This was no problem, I thought -- working my way up to see the Mona Lisa was not that much unlike pushing my way up to the stage of a Guided By Voices concert I saw at the Rosebud in Pittsburgh, nearly ten years earlier. It was a mess, but a loud, happy mess, a crusader making his way through the converted. They had been drinking as much and as long as they had been playing -- an epic feat for most bands, but just another Tuesday night for this one -- and after several hours of Robert Pollard calling out the GBV songbook and then singing them like the failed musician-turned teacher-turned, well, not failed musician that he was; at first I found him entirely repellant -- a cock rock version of someone burning through their own songs like what I'd imagine from a late-period Led Zeppelin show, but here there was an earnestness that defied any sense of irony, a beauty that challenged any detached truths, look though some may. By the time I made it up to the stage, the band was pretty drunk with beer cans and open coolers strewn all about, and Pollard began throwing in songs by the bands he had always loved as well as his own. He called out for "A Hard Day's Night," which was entirely unrehearsed: The lead guitarist literally didn't know what to play and was following the others as opposed to playing it in his own right. But the band held together and the confused guitarist was laughing through the whole thing; that was the kind of night it was and it was in that spirit that I did something I had never done before: I requested -- and got -- the lead guitarist's guitar pick (although, come to think of it, it may have been his spare pick from the top of his amp, but it was his guitar pick nonetheless), which I kept in my wallet until I bought jeans with smaller pockets and transferred my money to an Office Depot alligator clip and then realized one day my wallet had gone from discarded to missing.

But just as I had for Robert Pollard & Co., I made it to the front stage of the Mona Lisa, still about three feet back with nothing but air and bullet-proof glass between us. And I looked at it, trying to see it again for the first time, admiring all of the things that officially told me it was a great painting (for I had been skeptical at its greatness as a youth) -- the eyes that follow you, the impossible-to-capture smile coming out of or going into a smile, the sophisticated hands, the pyramidal composition, the ethereal, unrecognizable background suggesting an earth forming for the first time, the place where it must have been cropped by da Vinci, the places where it must have been hacked to pieces by a vandal, the place where it must have hung before now, open and exposed to the masses, ashes to ashes, dust to dust -- but happily still finding something that was seemingly of its own accord and new.

It was not too small for the wall, or too overrated for the history books, although it was definitely a tourist attraction. Countless bulbs flashed around me of a hundred snapshots that are probably now being put onto Snapfish or Facebook as I write this, or just as likely forgotten in the digital residue that is our postmodern computer-driven lives. I seriously didn't understand why people were taking pictures of it: No photo would come close to matching a professional postcard, well worth its price of one Euro in the gift shop. But people took not just the pictures of the painting, but themselves standing in front of it, like it was some fish they had caught, or perhaps more tellingly, some fish someone had caught 500 years earlier that they just happened to be in front of. As the great Ray Davies suggested in the Kinks' "People Take Pictures of Each Other," perhaps they do it "just to prove that they really existed." Maybe so, but the whole thing made me sick, but it also made me think a lot about humanity, in part because I felt like a bastard for thinking so lowly of those mindlessly taking pictures of the Most Famous Painting of All Time.

I consider the Mona Lisa to be, along with the David and the Last Supper and a few other things (Jefferson's writings and Lincoln's speeches, perhaps) to scale the height of human genius in a way that few things have ever done before or since. It is this clear and present genius that allows the Louvre to be mobbed whenever it's open -- at least in its Renaissance wing -- and it is this that draws people to the painting like lemmings, drawn to it as though by a holy force that they do not (and do not want to) understand.

It was, at least in my mind, humanity at its very highest and lowest. And yet, in my own pretentious, art student mind, I was just as guilty as the rest. I kept framing my thinking with Carl Mann, Robert Pollard, and Ray Davies, while the painting drew me into its mystique, a radiating sense of calm and peace I was not expecting nor had I ever experienced except at the end of a well-made movie or a particularly satisfying conversation. It was what the Easterners have supposedly been after all along, some form of Zen, the most elusive human ability of them all: To clear one's mind.

And clear it remained, until I felt as though I had received what I felt like I needed to receive and then turned back into the crowd and back to the early Renaissance painting from which I had came, only now with an unexplainable sense of peace in my heart and an old Carl Mann record in my mind.

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