Sweat Stained Review: Confessions of a Blue Collar Misfit
To Feel Less Alone
By Dan Denton
“We're the only country in the world that thinks art is a luxury. Everybody else in the world understands that art is an essential part of the quality of life.”
— Steven Van Zandt
This quote from Steven Van Zandt has been circulating social media in the form of a meme, since Little Steven’s interview on 60 minutes aired last Sunday. An interview most every artist should watch. The man, despite no formal training, is known as an architect of Rock music. Won awards as an actor. Wrote and produced his own limited series.
I don’t know about the accuracy of being the only country that doesn’t respect art, but this quote about it being an essential part of the quality of life, has been stuck in the craw of my overactive brain for days. I agree, and I’ve written and talked much in my life about how books and libraries saved me a hundred times. I tell everyone that will listen about how vital music is to me. How art museums are a safe haven. How art is pretty much my god.
But I’ve been breaking it down, chewing it over in my head, trying to get to it at a deeper level, until it finally clicked that the essentialness of art lies in its unique ability to make me feel less alone.
I started hanging out in my small town’s library when I was in kindergarten. Since my very first days as a reader. My mother would take me and my siblings when we were little. We’d walk the mile and a half from our government housing projects to the library, my mom pulling my younger siblings, and our books, in a rusty red wagon she found at a garage sale. By third or fourth grade, I could ride my bike there on my own, and I did. Often. I read everything I could get my hands on, and by the time I was in sixth grade, I’d graduated from the youth section to the adult one.
I spent my childhood either running the streets, or shut up alone in my bedroom, listening to music and reading books. If those books, and music only kept me company, that would have been enough to call it essential, would it not? But the reality is, books and music became my closest friends, because they made me feel less alone in a big scary world that I didn’t understand.
Blues music, punk, old country and western, and then hip hop, all of them plugged me into an angst and anger, a fuck you attitude that I wasn’t alone in feeling.
I felt that less alone thing again when I found Bukowski in my late teen years. I was a young, angry alcoholic that wanted to be a writer, but was forced by life to work in shitty factories. If anyone understood that life, it was Bukowski.
But I also found that less alone feeling, that “holy shit, someone else understands the way I feel,” when I read James Baldwin as a young man. If anyone understood not quite fitting in anywhere, it was him. I found the less alone when I read Alice Walker, and how her characters were always searching for answers, and consistently found them outside mainstream philosophy. I found the less alone when I read East of Eden after I got sober. How Steinbeck understood, like I was learning, that both the good and bad in the world lived together in my heart. I’ve felt less alone reading Roque Dalton. Amiri Baraka. Jim Harrison. Diane di Prima. Lidia Yuknavitch. And I could list a dozen other independent artists, too. S.A. Griffin. Catfish McDaris. Adrian Lime. Michele McDannold. Iris Berry. Westley Heine. Cody Sexton. I’m fortunate to know many other writers chasing immortality in word form.
I’d bet dollars that you have art that’s essential to you, too. Art that makes you feel less alone in this big crazy world. Even if you don’t think you love art, it’s no doubt hugging you right now like a security blanket during the holidays, when many of us need it the most. You’ll find those warm embraces while rewatching your old favorite holiday movies. In binge watching your favorite tv series. In listening to your favorite song over and over.
Maybe you’re not quite like me. Maybe you have a ton of friends and find fulfillment in a dozen social circles, and maybe you don’t need to claim books and music as your besties, but even still, I’d bet there’s some favorite good time music that you visit often.
I bet there’s been hard times in your life and I bet you found songs to help you through. Maybe it’s an anime series on Netflix that keeps you company when you’re sleepless. Maybe it’s Tik Tok, or Facebook scrolling that does it for you, but even those apps are full of music, digital art, and other creatives.
Whatever it is that makes you feel less alone, I hope you find it this week. I hope you find lots of it. I promise, no matter who you are, there’s books and music out there that understand, too. I still find it again and again, week after week. The books that remind me that there are others like me everywhere.
And all this thinking, finally reminded me of perhaps the best compliment my writing has ever received; this one from the great underground writer and artist Misti Rainwater-Lites. She wrote it in a review of my novella/poetry hybrid book Finding Jesus & Prayers To My Saints.
“Then I read Dan Denton or Charles Bukowski or Kathy Acker and remember that I am not alone.”
— Misti Rainwaiter-Lites
Misti is one of the best prose writers of our generation, and the fact that something I wrote made her feel less alone in the world, that’s about as good as it gets for me. I hope when you read my words you feel less alone, too. But if it’s not me, don’t stop looking there.
As humans, we are far more connected than most of us care to confess to, but too much isolation, and too many people that feel alone in the crowd, and many of us find ourselves unable to see past the blinders of daily routine to see the sea of empathy that sits in every library. Someone, somewhere, has walked in my shoes. Yours, too. And the fact that our country doesn’t invest in art as essential is a contributing factor to much of the societal struggles around us. Lucky for me and you, my brilliant readers, we know we never sit alone too long. We know the good company of a good poem. The friendship of a good song. The delightful dance of finding a book that you can’t put down.
Here’s to hoping we never stop finding the art that makes us remember we’re not an island.
Dan Denton is a former Union autoworker and UAW chief steward. He left that stable life to live in a travel trailer and work as a writer. His latest novel The Dead and the Desperate is available now from Roadside Press.