The Quixote

Fiona Apple opens the album “Fetch The Box Cutters” with a verse clearly aimed at her fans. She is notorious for taking her time between projects and all that lazying in between has to leave her wondering if anyone is still around to greet her. She confronts this thought right at the start of “I Want You to Love Me:”

I’ve waited many years
Every print I left upon the track
Has led me here
And next year it’ll be clear
This was only leading me to that
And by that time
I hope that You
Love me
Love me

Fiona is saying, don’t worry, every little misstep and sidetrack was worth it, it all leads to the album you’re about to hear and by the time all of you have done so, I hope you love me for it. It’s a nice moment of self knowledge, both for Fiona recognizing the fickle nature of the music business, but also for her strong, and correct, intuition that she was about to turn in the best work of her life.

With this little piece of confidence building out of the way, Fiona now lays out her mission. This album isn’t just about pleasing the fans, it’s also an act of gallantry. She’s put it out there to convince someone unnamed that there’s passion and greatness in her and damn if she’s going to let that person ignore her, even if that person is a composite of many or doesn’t exist at all:

I move with the trees
In the breeze
I know that time is elastic
And I know when I go
All my particles disband and disperse
And I’ll be back in the pulse
And I know none of this’ll matter 
In the long run
But I know a sound is still a sound
Around no-one
And while I’m in this body
I want somebody to want
And I want what I want
And I want You
To love me

This is a lovely verse, because Fiona is returning to her lazy, swaying with the breeze nature and sending a firm warning to whoever might be fooled that there is a maelstrom beneath it. And I cannot let pass what a musically fascinating song this is, the way Apple brings in multiple forms of percussion, including the piano bass keys, to serve as a bridge between her old sound and new. I also love the way Apple is directly challenging the auto-tune culture in today’s music business with a vocal that soars and cracks and is utterly inimitable.

Fiona Apple is only 42 years old, but show business is notorious cruel to women as they age. The album has the sense of, perhaps, being her last chance to break through to the popular culture while at the same time ushering in the second half of her life. Fiona is looking back quite a bit in “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” but she’s also declaring a new persona that doesn’t particularly care what anyone thinks about her. She has her mission and she’s keeping her aim on it.

The beautiful thing about Fiona’s quest is that it isn’t about getting something, it’s about wanting it. This maniacal quest becomes clarifying for her, a reason for recording, a reason for taking chances lyrically, a reason to completely reinvent her sound. It’s genuinely exciting to see a female artist take up this charge, because it is so ingrained in our culture as a male approach to the second half of life. Fiona has earned part two of her career and life and she’s damn sure going to seize it.

This is the nature of gallantry, which is the subject of Miguel Cervantes’ masterpiece “Don Quixote” — the first modern novel and in the opinion of many, still the best. It all began with a 50 year old man named Alonso Quixano becoming so enthralled with books about knight errantry that the tales begin to take over his mind:

In short, our gentleman became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk till dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset, and so with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind. His fantasy filled with everything he had read in his books, enchantments as well as combats, battles, challenges, wounds, courtings, loves, torments, and other impossible foolishness, and he became so convinced in his imagination of the truth of all the countless grandiloquent and false inventions he read that for him no history in the world was truer.

And so, what does an aging man with an ordinary life do when bewitched with such tales? He does the most sane thing that I can imagine — he dedicates himself to those visions:

The truth is that when his mind was completely gone, he had the strangest thought any lunatic in the world ever had, which was that it seemed reasonable and necessary to him, both for the sake of his honor and as a service to the nation, to become a knight errant and travel the world with his armor and his horse to seek adventures and engage in everything he had read that knights errant engaged in, righting all manner of wrongs and, by seizing the opportunity and placing himself in danger and ending those wrongs, winning eternal renown and everlasting fame.

Cervantes is playing a sly trick on us here and throughout the book, we learn. The man who takes up the name Don Quixote is not, in fact, delusional. He devotes his great quests to the lovely maiden Dulcinea del Toboso, yet he knows very well that this woman does not exist. Here is the novel’s first mention of her:

It is believed that in a nearby village there was a very attractive peasant girl with whom he had once been in love, although she, apparently, never knew or noticed. Her name was Aldonza Lorenzo, and he thought it a good idea to call her the lady of his thoughts, and, searching for a name that would not differ significantly from his and would suggest and imply that of a princess and great lady, he decided to call her Dulcinea of Toboso, because she came from Toboso, a name, to his mind, that was musical and beautiful and filled with significance, as were all the others he had given to himself and everything pertaining to him.

Quixote throughout is completely aware of the remarkable inventing that goes on inside him and it is nearly nonstop. This is a character who has so throughly absorbed the literature of the knight errant that he has established a jazz musician like understanding of the score and a sense of when and how he can riff off it. And before I forget, I adore that phrase “lady of his thoughts.” It sounds like a Stevie Wonder song title.

What I am setting up here is how powerful the opening to “Don Quixote” is, that more than 400 years after it was written, Fiona Apple is writing a variation of it in the opening song to her album and, for all I know, has never read the novel or considered how her artistic arc may be following that of the Man of La Mancha.

To close, I want to bring in one more artist who died a little over a decade before Don Quixote was written, our old friend Michel de Montaigne. Like Quixote, Montaigne is a pseudonym. His real name is Michel Eyquem. Like the hero of the Quixote, Montaigne retreats from the world to his estate, surrounded by books, deep in grief from the lost of his best friend. Instead of diving into the world of the knight errant, Montaigne follows stoic philosophers and various exemplars who lived great and noble lives, all in service of helping Montaigne discover how he should prepare to die — only to find out along the way that his real quest was about how to live.

This too is Quixote’s quest. It has no real attainable goal, it is purely about the wanting, the desire to win over an unattainable love interest, the need to win acclaim for tasks that are patently absurd. As Fiona Apple says “I know none of this’ll matter in the long run.” Cervantes and Montaigne would agree.

There are many, many more parts of this series to come.