Visual Arts

Flying Alone: Edward Hopper and America's Night Side

David Masciotra
Nighthawks (1942) (partial)

Isolation is more than being alone. That is why the greatest and most discomforting presentation of isolation can be found in Hopper's paintings that include more than one person.

French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy makes the interesting and useful distinction that painting is not a representation of the empirical world, but a presentation of the world -- of sense and of existence. This idea remained on my mind while I walked through the Edward Hopper retrospective exhibit that just ended its national tour, making stops in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Hopper was reticent to speak about his own work, and went so far as to self-deprecatingly imply that all he ever desired to do was paint the rays of a sunset bouncing off the roof of a New England house. Like the narratives in his paintings, his "artist statement" is ambiguous, mysterious, and vulnerable to diversely varying interpretations. In an importantly symbolic sense, Hopper's refusal to speak freely about his work provides a more clear and potent insight than any words could muster.

His silence is complementary to and indicative of the unnerving silence of his characters. The most commonly used word by Hopper's admirers and critics is "isolation", and any viewer of Hopper's art can understand why. A sense of dread, despair, and dejected sensibility can be seen on the young woman's downward looking face in Automat (1927). Feelings of detachment and loneliness, and the uneasy boredom that accompanies them, are projected on to the onlooker of the usheress staring at the spot where the floor and wall meet in New York Movie (1939).

Automat (1927) (partial)

Isolation is more than merely being alone. It is existential emptiness, deep despair, and a longing for tangible connections with other people who are in sight, but feel miles away. This is why the greatest and most discomforting presentation of isolation can be found in Hopper's paintings that include more than one person.

Cape Cod Evening (1939) presents two people who appear to be lovers, or at least live in the same house, sitting in their backyard with their dog. There is no eye contact between any of the characters -- both the man and woman look out on to the grass, and the dog stares into the landscape. The young man places his hand onto a few spikes of grass to feel the wind blow them against his palm, reaching out for something on his skin even if it is as disloyal and restless as the wind, while another human being stands right next to him. In Office at Night (1940), a woman appears to be longing for her co-worker's attention and affection, while leering over his shoulder pretending to file through a cabinet. He is focused on his desk, oblivious to her company.

Desolation, isolation, and separation are evoked and emoted most famously in Nighthawks (1942), the classic and perhaps definitive work of American realism. Four people, presumably strangers, sit in an all-night diner. One employee, in a white uniform and paper hat, reaches for something underneath the counter while affixing his eyes straight ahead out the window. The three customers -- two men and one woman -- appear utterly depressed as they seem to make a strong effort not to look at each other.

Nighthawks has become part of the American iconography and a central part of Americana -- reproduced on television, movie screens, book covers, and album artwork; referenced in film noir, The Simpsons, and Tom Waits records. It seems to simultaneously capture and destroy the American myth of self-made strength through "rugged individualism" by presenting its underbelly -- its social consequences that manifest in personal and national insomnia. This is the night side of America.

The superpower is tossing and turning, listening to the dull hum of the ceiling fan, glancing at the blood red digital clock, desperately wishing to fall back asleep to visit American dream land. The "nighthawks", with their grim outlooks, chipped shoulders, and discouraged demeanors are those that have come to realize that the "American dream" is just that: a dream. It is not tangibly attainable. It is fleeting. It is a fantasy.

The nighthawks mourn, along with the Cape Cod family and the New York usheress, as Hopper mourns, for something that never really existed. They grieve for a myth that they once believed in, and in the absence of such a belief they find their loneliness. Unable to find comfort in others, they become isolated. Hopper's presentations of the world, of existence and of sense, are essential because in them viewers can see Mark Twain, Gore Vidal, Herman Melville, Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, and many more artists of varying genres and eras that too have mourned for a dream.

Cape Cod Evening (1939) (partial)

When Gore Vidal writes of his grandfather, Oklahoma Senator Thomas Pryor Gore (1870-1949), in his memoirs, he describes a man he loved, but also politics as he understood it in childhood, walking the halls of the Senate holding his blind grandfather's hand or reading him policy papers and speeches as he fell asleep. Vidal's work, which has shown the selfishness of American politics, the darkness of Empire, and the costs of imperial hubris better than any other historian novelist, maps the distance between the dream he dreamt during childhood and the reality he grew to understand during adulthood.

When Bruce Springsteen sings of a girl staring into the night with "the eyes of one who hates for just being born" in "Racing in the Street" (1978) or a small-town drifter watching idealized America, but longing for a connection as "girls in their summer clothes" pass him by ("Girls in Their Summer Clothes", 2007), is he not presenting the same burnt out, passed over, and betrayed individuals that are visible in Hopper's painting?

Hopper, Vidal, Springsteen, and many other great American artists reveal the dark side of America situated along the fault lines of nostalgic dreams turned nightmares in the middle of nowhere, yet surrounded by people, activity, and noise. They also demonstrate that through art the artist makes a commitment to a vocation of truth telling, and there is no vocation without invocation, whether consciously done or not. Through invocation of great forebearers of artistic creativity and prophetic critique of the status quo, the viewer is connected to the legions of brave men and women who summoned all their talent, intelligence, and spiritual genius to not only strip society of all its self-protective veils, but also offer hope to those who are victimized behind the veils.

Springsteen may sing about people with a perpetual case of the blues, but his choruses are often secular gospel: "Come on up for the rising"; "I believe in the promised land." Vidal may assault the use and evolution of American power, but at one point he wrote hopefully about the activist movements of the 1960s, and also details alternative ways of thinking, which have the potential to be uplifting and liberating, in such fine novels as Creation and The Judgment of Paris. Hopper's grim portrait of the American sociological and psychological unraveling may be entirely missing a hopeful answer, but it does provide an honest mirror for Americans in denial about their own isolation and resistance to real community. One can humbly hope that this mirror will motivate a makeover.

Self-Portrait (1925-30)

In a country where public institutions are neglected and/or failing, social programs are consistently cut, and civic traditions are weakened with each passing year, concerned citizens must confront, with hopes to conquer, that almost inevitable isolation and emptiness that creeps into the collective American lifestyle. What is essential for individuals, but more importantly communities, is not cheap and naïve optimism that tends to accompany thoughtless consumerism and marketplace madness. The extreme opposite approach -- all encompassing pessimism -- will also fail to lead people above the fray of American dreams never realized.

A wise and weathered hope, gathered from our artists, and imbued with understanding of the odds and familiarity with the darkness, which refuses to give up or give in is the only possible catalyst for organized people to create a society guided by love, solidarity, and community.

Otherwise, we're all just nighthawks.

David Masciotra is a regular contributor to the Herald News in Joliet, Illinois. He lives in Dyer, Indiana.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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