Don’t Bend. Stay Strange


“Don’t bendStay strange.” –David Bowie

“All children are born artists, the problem is to remain artists as we grow up.” –Pablo Picasso.

“We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it.” –Ken Robinson said to further the Picasso quote.

“Don’t bend. Stay Strange,” is such a simplistic and beautiful quote that if we heard it earlier in life, some of us might have stitched it out on oven mitts, T-shirts, and flags.

“What’s it mean though?” we young people would’ve asked Bowie if we had the chance.

David Bowie answered with an appearance on a 70’s show called The Midnight Special. It’s difficult to capture the effect this weird, strange, and just plain different appearance had on me all those decades ago. I was floored. I was flabbergasted. I craved the weird, strange and just plain different, even when I was young. Even before I knew the totality of what embracing the weird meant, I was attracted to it. Bowie’s appearance on this show absolutely rattled me. I thought it was shtick when he first walked out. I waited for David Bowie to engage in some kind of monkey dance, or some kind of Steve Martin-ish routine, and then he started singing. I realized that this commanding voice was not an affectation. This was a full-on embrace of the weird. It made me uncomfortable, but it also excited, confused, and transfixed me. I was so young, and so confused, that I considered his appearance unsettling, and I needed my mom to help me deal with it. “He’s just weird,” she said. She was trying to comfort me. Her message was he’s so weird that he’s probably being weird for the sake of being weird. I argued that I didn’t think so. “If that’s the case,” she said, “we probably don’t want to peel that onion.” She said we should dismiss him, without saying those words, and I did. I didn’t want my mom to consider me weird, and I didn’t want anyone else to think so either. Yet, I couldn’t look away. It was obvious by the man’s appearance, and the way he moved and sang that he embraced the weird. I never knew anyone who embraced being weird at that point. Weird was what we whispered when we saw it walking down the street, and we walked a lower case (‘b’) around it.

Those of us who were weird, strange, and just plain different in our youth, would’ve loved to embrace the weird, if for no other reason than to have some measure of resolve in our fight against the pressure we felt from our peers and our authority figures preaching that we be more like them. We weren’t confident enough to embrace the weird yet though. Most boys and girls, aged 7 to 18, aren’t. Athletes and cool kids rarely have to face such pressure, and screenwriters write screenplays that depict their weird characters overcoming adversaries with one quick, poignant line to sway their peers. We wish it were that easy. The screenwriters likely rewrote their true experiences to right their wrongs and make their weird characteristics more virtuous. For the rest of us, the pressure to conform to have others like us and accept us as good boys and girls was so intense that it broke us.

If Bowie dropped this quote on me, as a kid, it might have helped me through the swamp, but I don’t think Bowie would’ve dropped such a line on a kid. Rock stars are generally impetuous creatures, but I would hope that David Bowie wouldn’t be so reckless as to advise a child to embrace the weird. I think he reserved such notions for relatively stable, confident adults. If he followed that impulse, I think he knew it might cost that kid some happiness, for the world is so confusing to a kid that they need to embrace normalcy until their minds are strong enough to embrace the weird. I also think such a quote might mess with that young person’s artistic cocoon. I think Bowie knew, from firsthand experience, that the struggle to maintain the weird defines the artist in constructive, creative ways. To paraphrase the Picasso quote above, the problem isn’t how to become weird, strange, and just plain different. The problem is to maintain it as we work our way through the mire and maze of childhood.

Most of us from relatively stable homes were trained to avoid being weird by the old guard. They refuted our passion with words like, “I know you think you’re onto something, but that isn’t the way to be.” We didn’t see this as a good thing at the time, and we rebelled and all that, but we now see it differently. We see it differently, because when we were finally ready to let our freak flag fly, we did so with one foot firmly entrenched in the normal world. This perspective is particularly vital to writers, as it gives them an outside perspective from which to report on those who followed their passion throughout life and embrace the weird, strange, and just plain different.

***

Some scholars, like Sir Ken Robinson, want us to violate these theories by changing school curriculum to recognize the weird, strange, and just plain different. In his popular Ted Talk speech, he cites anecdotal evidence to suggest that we should change the curriculum to recognize the unique and special qualities of weird, strange, and just plain different students.

I know I stand to lose my membership in the halls of the mildly creative, weird people with this question, but shouldn’t they have to learn the rules first? Most writers were wildly imaginative kids, and when our kids flash their unique fantastical worldview before us, we remember how weird we used to be. We remember how imaginative and creative we used to be, and we remember those years fondly. Our kids reignite our internal, eternal flame. We remember how special it was to be imaginative without borders, but we also remember how unstable and confusing that time was. We were impulsively and instinctively imaginative without borders, and we smashed through whatever borders they put in our way, but most of the results of our beautiful and wonderful childish creativity was gobbedly gook.

We didn’t know what we were talking about because we were kids. We didn’t do anything worthwhile, even when we were wildly creative, because we didn’t know what we were doing. We were kids. When we think of the rules, we often think of some humorless school master enforcing discipline at the end of a ruler, but we often forget how many little, seemingly inconsequential matters we learned along the way helped to form our thoughts and mature our minds. All of those little, relatively inconsequential matters made us who we are today.

There will be prodigies. There will always be prodigies, but for the rest of us, there is a special formula to achieving final form. This painfully methodical process involves rebelling against our individual establishment, succumbing to it, recognizing its inherent flaws, and returning to our rebellion with an informed mind. As I wrote in the Platypus People blog, “one of our first jobs as a future rebel is to learn the rules of order better than those who choose to follow them.” The idea that the manner in which school curriculum deprives, stilts and discourages creativity is a strong one, but do these scholars remember how confusing the adolescent years could be for the kids who weren’t prodigies? Lost in this discussion is our need to understand that which we now deem unreasonable, irrational, and in need of change. Why does this work, how does that work, and how and why should we change this and that? One typical response I heard often from a number of teachers was, “I welcome your complaints, but if you’re going to complain, you better have a solution.” How can we have a solution to the complaints we create, in artistic forms, if we don’t first understand the problem better than those who are just fine with it?

The perfect formula, as I see it, is for the creative artist, as Pablo Picasso said, is to remain weird after learning the curriculum and surviving the need to conform. When we learn how to read, write, and arithmetic, we use them to fertilize the science of creativity. If an artist can maintain their fantastical thoughts after learning, they might be able to employ the disciplines they learn to enhance their creative and innovative mind to artistic maturity.

We don’t know many specifics of Sir Ken’s dream school, but one of the fundamental elements he theoretically employs is the need to play. The creative mind, he says, needs time and space to play. Throw them a block and let them play with it, and we’ll see their ingenious minds at work. He dots his speech with humorous anecdotes that serve to further his thesis. We know that Wayne Gretzky spent much of his youth playing with a stick and a hockey puck in every way he could dream up, and we learn that other kids develop their own relatively ingenious little theories by playing. We cannot forget to let them play. It is a well-thought out, provocative theory, but it neglects to mention how important discipline is in this equation. The discipline necessary to figure out complicated mathematical equations and formulas might seem frivolous to a dance prodigy, for example, but Geometry works the mind in many ways it otherwise wouldn’t.

“Why do I have to learn this?” we all asked in Geometry class. “What are the chances that I’ll use this knowledge in life? If I grow up to be a vice-president of a bank, what are the chances that knowledge of the Alexandrian Greek mathematician Euclid’s theories will come into play?” One answer to the question arrives when we meet a fellow banker who knows nothing but banking. For whatever reason our fellow banker knew she wanted to be a bank vice-president at a very young age. Her focus was such that she had the tunnel vision necessary to succeed in the banking world, but everyone who knows her knows the minute she clocks out for the day, she’s lost. She might be successful by most measures, but she knows nothing about the world outside of banking, because she never needed any knowledge beyond that which exists in banking.  

“How can you report on the world, if you know nothing about it?” is a question I would ask the twelve-year-old prodigy who wrote a fantasy novel. The kid’s story fascinated me, because writing a 200 page novel is so foreign to my concept of what it means to be twelve-years-old. I was trying to make friends and be happy at twelve-years-old. I read the news article about this kid with great interest, and if I ever ran into him, I would encourage him to see his talent to its extent, and I would applaud him for what he did, but I would never read his novel. I don’t think a twelve-year-old’s vision of the world would do anything for me.

Sir Ken Robinson doesn’t say that he wants to do away with the curriculum directly, but in his idyllic world, we need to cater it to the talents of people like this twelve-year-old prodigy, the dance prodigies, and all the other as of yet unrecognized prodigies around the world.

We’ve all heard tales of these uniquely talented creative people and prodigies with tunnel vision. We marvel at their tales, but we’ve also heard tales of how former prodigies don’t know how to fit in the world properly. They’ve reached their goal by producing a relatively prodigious output, but they’re now unhappy. Something fundamental is missing in them that they’ll never square properly. Being on the proverbial stage is the only thing that gives them joy, and they understand this as little as we do. It might have something to do with being in the spotlight their whole lives, but it might go deeper than that. It might have something to do with the fact that their authority figures never allowed them to be normal, and they never had to learn the basic, core answers the rest of us learned by working through all of the pointless exercises that our core curriculum forced us to figure out. So, if I take a Geometry class, I’m going to be less confused about the world? No, but if you learn how to learn how to use your brain in a wide variety of ways, it might help us arrive at answers that help us cope with the otherwise random world a little better.

Robinson might be onto something when he suggests that if we feed into a prodigy’s creative instincts, we might have more of them, and they might be happier people as a result. His thesis suggests that most people are unhappy because they have untapped talent that we neglect to foster. Let them play, he says. Fine, I say, but why can’t we let me play at a dance school, in art class, or in a school band? Do we have to devote our entire curriculum to helping them recognize their talent? A strong, confident adult is so difficult to raise that as much as I would’ve loved devotion to recognizing my weird talent, I think I would’ve ended up so deficient in so many other areas. Devotion to recognizing my weird talents would’ve made me happier in the short term, as I think I was always heading down a certain road I didn’t recognize for some time, but I think I’d probably would’ve ended up more confused than I already am.

How many of us think that we could’ve been prodigies if someone came along, recognized our talents, and coached them up? How many of us think we wasted so much time in school learning things that didn’t matter? Robinson feeds into these fantasies with some anecdotal evidence that suggests if we would just encourage dance more, we might have more dance prodigies. He suggests that if we, as parents, learn how to feed our child’s talent, they might be happier. If the child’s interests are satisfied, they might be more satisfied. Possibly, but if we devote our entire curriculum to dance, creative writing, painting, or one of the other art forms, how many failed upstarts might we have? Students mature at different rates, and while developing schools devoted to encourage more creativity, it will likely result in unequal amounts of misery among those we thought were prodigies based on their wild imaginations, but were actually engaged in child-like gibberish.

Smashing Pumpkins’ Cyr Will not be Mellon Collie


“It’s not Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” will be the theme of the critical reaction to the new Smashing Pumpkins new album Cyr. The songs we’ve heard from this upcoming album thus far aren’t too bad, but they’re not Mellon Collie. At this date, some 25 years since its release (!), Billy Corgan probably has a love/hate relationship with the album called Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. We can guess that he loves the fact that he created what many call a masterpiece, for not many artists do, but he probably hates that everything he created lives in its shadow.

We all have varying tastes, of course, and some might say they prefer one of the other Smashing Pumpkins’ albums, but even they would admit Mellon Collie and Siamese Dream had special, timeless, and transcendental qualities about them that are difficult to recapture. Some of us call them masterpieces in their own right, and others say they are the products of Billy Corgan’s creative peak.

What is a creative peak? It is as difficult for artists to create, as it is to maintain. It is equally as difficult for the rest of us to explain. We can say that our reaction to it was a time and place phenomenon, and we could say that Billy Corgan’s creation of it had something to do with this phenomenon too. The finished products, coupled with the worldwide reaction to them might have satisfied Corgan’s need to prove himself, and he’s never been able to duplicate that inner drive. Those of us who have never accomplished such feats don’t know how hard it must be to recapture the elements that drove Corgan to create these albums. I don’t intend that to be a commentary on Billy Corgan’s work that followed, for I think most of his work post-Mellon Collie has been better than the vast majority of his peers, but he set such a high bar for himself with Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie. Every artist goes through peaks and valleys, and most of them cannot explain them. We can’t explain them either, as I wrote, we couldn’t explain why we prefer some art to others, but we know it when we see/hear it, especially in hindsight.

When creative peaks prove as fruitful as Corgan’s was, most of us laymen just assume that they will last forever, and when they don’t, we express our disappointment by saying, “It’s a good album, but it’s not as good as their masterpiece. It’s almost like they’re not trying anymore.” Everyone assumes that Kurt Cobain would’ve just gone on, had he lived, writing top-notch albums, but as Cobain wrote, “Teenage angst has paid off well. Now I’m bored and old.” It was almost as if he was preparing us for what was going to follow, if he lived of course.

If we lump Siamese Dream in with Mellon Collie, and we add Aeroplane Flies High and Pisces Iscariot into the mix, I think we can say that Billy Corgan had an enviable five-year run. Some of the songs on those latter two productions were definitely B-sides, but if we removed some of the top-notch songs on Aeroplane, we might be able to put together two high quality albums. We diehard fans have done so on blank cassette tapes and MP3 playlists. It just seems unfair to compare everything he’s done since, and everything he will do in the future to that creative peak, but such is the nature of art.

Billy Corgan and Co. were a songwriting machine from roughly 1993 to 1996. It was an incredibly creative period for Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlain, and James Iha. (I’m sure Chamberlain, Iha, and D’arcy had more creative input than reports suggest, but from what I’ve read Corgan was the maestro/dictator in the studio.) Personally, I loved the album Gish, and I devoured that album before Siamese Dream’s release, but I wouldn’t put on the same shelf as Mellon Collie and Siamese Dream. I realize that some of the material on the boxset likely predates Siamese Dream, so let’s be generous in our estimate and say this creative period stretched out over a five year, incredibly prolific creative peak. How many musicians would give whatever remains of their otherwise damaged livers for 1/5th of the creative output the Smashing Pumpkins had in those five years? Personally, I think it was one of the most prolific periods of music for one artist in rock history, but I think it’s fair to say that the high bar Corgan set during this period ended twenty-five years ago.

I remember when the Smashing Pumpkins released the single Ava Adore. Oh boy,we thought, here we go again. The leap wasn’t as great as the one between Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie for some of us, but we all fantasized that the single was a sign that this peak would last far longer than we thought it would after the Pumpkins released a double album of material followed by a boxset. Siamese Dream was, after all, the opposite of a sophomore jinx. Once Siamese Dream hit out tape deck, Gish was obsolete, and any flirtation we had with the idea that there might be a junior jinx ended the moment we heard the single Bullet with Butterfly Wings. So, when the single Ava Adore came out, it seemed feasible that Corgan was simply a hard rock/pop prodigy who would blow us out of the water every two to three years until the end of his life.    

How could one man, and his band, release so much material in such a small amount of time, and come up with yet another great album? The answer was he couldn’t. The peak was over. I still think that if Corgan saved about eight of the best songs on Aeroplane Flies High, and combined them with the six best songs on Ava Adore, I think he could’ve satisfied critics and fans so much that they would’ve listed Ava Adore as his third best album and part of the creative peak. What motivated Corgan to release the boxset, I suspect, was that he wanted to put Mellon Collie, and everything attached to it, behind him. I think he wanted to defeat the idea of a creative peak in his own mind and challenge himself with a restart.   

***

When critics savaged R.E.M.’s first effort without Bill Berry, 1998’s Up, Michael Stipe complained that he thought Up was a great album. He said that critics unfairly compared Up to their previous five albums, i.e. their creative peak. He said something along the lines of, “If an up and coming band created Up, you critics would be salivating all over it, but because it wasn’t Automatic for the People, Monster, or New Adventures in Hi-Fi, you think the album stinks.” Perhaps Stipe and Co. were frustrated that the high bar they set for themselves that couldn’t be maintained forever, or that they felt like the critics helped cut that peak short prematurely. It’s also possible that the departure of Bill Berry was more profound than anyone imagined. Whatever the case was for them, the critics were right, as Up proved the creative peak was over for R.E.M. They would release four more albums and except for a few singles here and there, those albums only provided further evidence that peaks end for every creative artist.

Stipe’s greater question is worthy of exploration however. How would we regard albums like Ava Adore or Machina, if they came out before Mellon Collie or Siamese Dream? It’s impossible to answer of course, but it’s an interesting question.

Artists can artificially attempt to realign the stars back to the configuration they experienced during their peak. They can bring back ex-members, hire the producer who helped finesse their masterpiece, and they can go back to the basics, after expunging their need to experiment. They can eat nothing but bacon and drink nothing but the flavor of Snapple they drank when they created their masterpiece, but something will forever elude them.

Our immediate reaction to a new Smashing Pumpkins album now is, they just lost it, whatever it is. They can write some great singles here and there, but as far as writing awe-inspiring magic that drove them to create deep cuts and B-sides that are better than most bands’ hit singles, those days are over. The greater question I would ask is, “Did they ever have it?” The answer to that question, to my mind, is an undeniable, “YES! Yes, they did. For five years, Billy Corgan and Co. created some of the most beautiful, most aggressive, and most pleasing music some of us have ever heard.” For all of the comparatively greater praise devoted to bands such as Guns N’ Roses, Metallica and Nirvana, they only had two influential, transcedental albums. As great as Mr. Bungle and Soundgarden were, they only came out with two fantastic albums. How many great bands came out with songs that blew our minds, but they failed to follow those great songs up with enough deep cuts to make a great album? It’s debatable, but I would suggest that great singles blind most people to the fact that most of the albums they were on weren’t as great as we thought they were.

In some ways, legends like The Beatles, Queen, David Bowie, and Led Zeppelin spoiled us by setting such an unreasonable standard for the rest of the bands in music by having more than two great albums. For those who are lucky enough to have more than one great album, they should go on to make the best music they can, but they should know that they will probably never be able to recapture that ‘time and place’ magic that usually only happens once in a lifetime. If it happens twice, live it and love it for as long as it lasts, for it will probably never happen again. This note also goes out to all critics, fans, and everyone in between who judge decent to good albums on the basis that they’re not as great as the albums these artists produced during their peak. How many of our favorite artists never made one great album, top to bottom?

As one reviewer on Allmusic.com wrote, “You can’t blame Billy [Corgan], he already did his best.” This reviewer reminds me of other non-creative types who have never created one piece of art.  suggest that once a creative peak ends the artist should just quit. They should just ride off into the sunset, collect their royalty checks and consider their life well lived. They do the same with athletes. They suggest that after a professional athlete wins a championship that he should just retire. They proved that they did the best they could with their talent, and we all know that it’s downhill from here, so we want him to quit so we can live with this particular memory of him. The one thing we forget is accomplishing incredible feats, in athletic and artistic venues, is so hard that it involves amounts of passion that no critic would understand. The passion and love that drove them to achieve such peaks doesn’t just end after that peak ends, and with Billy Corgan it’s obvious in the beautiful music he’s created since.   

Scat Mask Replica VIII


How much money does the average Fortune 500 Company spend learning the mind of the consumer? How many psychologists, linguists, and marketers do their preferred research firms and marketing agencies consult before starting production on a commercial? Their job is to know what makes us laugh, what makes us cry, and what intrigues us long enough to pitch a product or idea. They also have the unenviable chore of finding a way to keep us from fast forwarding through commercials. The average commercial is thirty seconds long, so advertisers need to pack a lot into a tight space. With all the time, money, and information packed into one thirty-second advertisement, one could say that commercials are better than any other medium at informing us where our culture is. One could even go so far to say that each commercial is a short, detailed report on the culture. If that’s true, all one needs to do is watch commercials to know that the art of persuasion has altered dramatically in our post-literate society.

Booksellers argue that we don’t live in a post-literate society, as their quarterly reports indicate that books are selling better than ever. I don’t question their accounting numbers, but some of the commercials big corporations use to move product are so dumbed down and condescending that I wonder if fewer and fewer people are buying more and more books.

When advertisers make their pitch, they go to great pains, financially and otherwise, to display wonderful messages. They then hire a wonderful actor, or spokesman, to be the face of the company. By doing so, of course, the companies who employ the advertising agencies want the consumer to find their company is just as wonderful. If you’re not a wonderful person, their carefully tailored message suggests you can be if you follow their formula. If I am forced, for whatever reason, to watch a commercial, I find their pitches so condescending that they almost make me angry.

Thirty seconds is not a lot of time when it comes to the art of persuasion, so advertising agencies take shortcuts to appeal to us. These shortcuts often involve quick emotional appeals. The problem with this is that people who watch commercials adopt these shortcuts in casual conversations, and they begin using them in everyday life.

I find the quick, emotional appeals these research and marketing firms dig up so appalling that I avoid commercials as much as possible. I find the opposite so appealing, in comparison, that I probably give attempts at fact-based, critical thinking more credit than they deserve. I walk away thinking, “Hey, that’s a good idea!” whether it’s actually a good idea or not, I appreciate the thought they put into making a rational appeal.

Some quick, emotional appeals add crying to their art of persuasion. “Don’t cry,” I say. “Prove your point.” A picture says a thousand words, right? Wrong. We’ve all come to accept the idea that powerful figures and companies require an array of consultants to help them tailor their message for greater appeal. Yet, if one has facts on their side, they shouldn’t need to cry. They shouldn’t need to hire consultants, they shouldn’t need attractive spokesmen, and the idea that they “seem nice and wonderful” shouldn’t matter either. I know it’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle, but I think the art of persuasion should be devoid of superficial and emotional appeal.

***

Marketing firms and their research arms also spend an inordinate amount of time discussing “the future”. Some ads intone their pitch with foreboding tones, and some discuss it with excitement. Our knowledge of the future depends on our knowledge of the past. As evidence of that, we look to our senior citizens. They don’t pay attention to the present, because they find it mostly redundant. “What are you kids talking about these days?” they ask. We inform them. “That’s the same thing we were talking about 50 years ago.” Impossible, we think, we’re talking about the here and now. They can’t possibly understand the present. They can, because it’s not as different from the past as we want to believe. The one element that remains a constant throughout is human nature.

You’re saying that all the change we’ve been fighting for will amount to nothing? It depends on the nature of your fight. Are you fighting to change human nature? If so, there’s an analogy that suggests, if you’re trying to turn a speedboat, all you have to do is flick a wrist. If you’re trying to change the direction of a battleship, however, you should prepare for an arduous, complicated, and slow turn. My bet is that once we work through the squabbles and internecine battles of the next fifty years, the future will not change as much as these doomsayers want it to, and if it does, it will probably be for the better.       

***

Brian Dettmer

How many people truly want to create works of art? “I would love to write a book,” is something many people say. How many want it so badly that they’re willing to endure the trial and error involved in the process getting to the core of a unique, organic idea? How many of us know firsthand, what a true artist has to go through? If others knew what they have to go through, I think they would say, “Maybe I don’t want it that badly.”

We prefer quick, emotional appeals. How many overnight geniuses are there? How many artists write one book, one album, or paint one painting to mass appeal? How many of them were able to generate long-term appeal? We should not confuse appeal with best seller. The idea of best seller or attaining market appeal is, to some degree, not up to the artist. They might have a hand in the marketing process, but appeal is largely up to the consumer. The only thing an artist can do is create the best product possible in the large and small ways an artist creates. In this vein, creating art involves a process so arduous that most people would intimidate most.

On the flip side, some say that there are artistic, creative types, and there are the others. There’s no doubt that there are varying levels of talent, but I believe that with enough time and effort most people could create something beautiful and individualistic.

Leonardo da Vinci was a talented artist, who painted some of the greatest pieces of art in world history. From what I’ve read about the man, however, he achieved so much in the arts that it began to bore him. After working through his apprenticeship and establishing himself as one of the finest painters of his day, he received numerous commissions for various works of art from the wealthy people and government officials around him. He turned some down, never started others, and failed to complete a whole lot more. One theory I’ve heard on da Vinci is that if he had a starving artist period, he probably created hundreds of thousands of pieces in that period, but that a vast majority of those pieces were lost, destroyed, or are otherwise lost to history. By the time, he achieved a level of stature where those in his day wanted to preserve his work, painting bored him so much that he created comparatively few pieces. Either that, or in the course of his attempts to create that elusive “perfect piece” da Vinci began studying the sciences to give his works greater authenticity. In the course of those studies, he became more interested in the sciences than he was in painting. These are just theories on why we only have seventeen confirmed pieces from Leonardo da Vinci, but they sound firm to me.

***

There is a hemispheric divide between creative types and math and science types. One barometer I’ve found to distinguish the two is the Beatles. So many types love the Beatles that we can tell what type of brain we’re dealing with by asking them what Beatles era they prefer. With the obvious distinctions in style, we can break the Beatles down into two distinct eras, the moptop era includes everything they did before Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the “drug-induced” era that followed. Numbers-oriented people generally love the moptop era more, and the creative, more right brain thinkers tend to prefer Sgt. Peppers and everything that followed. The moptop era fans believe the Beatles were a better band during the moptop era, because “they were more popular before Sgt. Peppers. Back then,” they say, “the Beatles were a phenomenon no one could deny.” Moptop era fans often add that, “the Beatles got a little too weird for my taste in the “drug-induced” albums that followed.” Although there is some argument over which album sold the most, at the time of release, it is generally argued that the latter half of their discography actually sold more than the first half. Numbers-oriented people should recognize that the latter albums were bound to sell more if for no other reason than the moptop Beatles built a fan base who would purchase just about anything they created after the moptop era. Those who lived during the era, however, generally think that the Beatles were less controversial and thus more popular during their moptop era, and if you’ve ever entered into this debate you know it’s pointless to argue otherwise. We creative types would never say that the pre-Sgt. Peppers Beatles didn’t have great singles, and Revolver and Rubber Soul were great albums, and we understand that those who lived during the era have personal romantic attachments to their era of Beatles albums, but we can’t understand how they fail to recognize the transcendental brilliance of the latter albums. We think the brilliance and the creativity they displayed on Sgt. Peppers and everything that followed provided a continental divide no one can dispute.

Further evidence of the popularity of the latter half of the Beatles catalog occurred in 1973. In 1973, the Beatles released two greatest hits compilations simultaneously for fans who weren’t aware of the Beatles during their era. The blue greatest hits album, which covered the 1967-1970, post Sgt. Peppers era has sold 17 million to date, while the red greatest hits 1962-1967, moptop-era album has sold 15 million. As anyone who has entered into this debate knows, however, it’s an unwinnable war.

Rock and Roll is Dead!


“Rock and Roll is dead!” is a line most of us have heard for most of our lives. From the anthemic screams of punk rockers to the classic rockers suggesting, “Today’s music ain’t got the same soul,” everyone has enjoyed repeating a version of this line. For most of our lives, however, this has been little more than snarky criticism of the current status quo. For some of us, this has been based on the idea that our favorite strain of rock is no longer prominent, that we don’t appreciate the new direction rock was headed in, or that we have simply aged out of it. Looking at it from a rational perspective, rock and roll has always been able to survive based on young individuals crafting creative derivatives of what came before, and those derivatives develop movements that lead to greater sales and continued power, for rock in the music industry. On both planes, it does appear that either rock music is in a severe and prolonged downtrend, or that it may, in fact, be dead in terms of it being a powerful force in the music industry.

“For generations, rock music was always there, and it always felt like it would come back, no matter what the current trend happened to be,” Eddie Van Halen told Chuck Klosterman in a 2015 interview. “For whatever reason, it doesn’t feel like it’s coming back this time.”

As Klosterman writes, in his book But What if We’re Wrong, Eddie Van Halen said this at sixty-years-old:

“So some might discount (Eddie Van Halen’s) sentiments as the pessimistic opinion of someone who’s given up on music. His view, however, is shared by rock musicians who were still chewing on pacifiers when Van Halen was already famous.”

Thirty-seven-year-old singer of the band Muse, Matt Bellamy, echoed Eddie’s statement saying:

“We live in a time where intelligent people –or creative, clever people– have actually chosen computers to make (sic) music. They’ve chosen (sic) to work in tech. There’s an exhaustion of intelligence which has moved out of the music industry and into other industries.”

Chuck Klosterman then adds:

“We’ve run out of teenagers with the desire (and potential) to become (the next) Eddie Van Halen. As far as the mass culture is concerned that time is over.”   

If the reader is as shocked as I was to read a high profile, classic hard rock performer, coupled with a more modern artist, and a rock enthusiast on par with Chuck Klosterman, discuss the end of an era in such a rational, and persuasive manner, you’re not alone. It does not appear to me that these individuals were intending to be provocative. They were suggesting that it now appears that those of us that proclaimed, “Rock and Roll will never die!” were wrong, and that historians may view rock and roll as nothing more than a prolonged, influential, and cultural trend. My interpretation of these comments is that there will always be some musicians who make rock music and albums, but the powerful force that once helped form the backbone of America might be over. That trend may have been such a prolonged staple that it’s been around longer than most of us have been alive. Yet, if we are able to remove the emotion we have vested in the art form and examine it from the perspective of creativity and album sales, it is more than likely that hundreds of years from now historians will view rock and roll as a trend that began in the mid-to-late fifties and ended somewhere around 2010.

The Creative Power 

The one aspect of Bob Dylan’s memoir Chronicles that an interested reader will learn about the man, more than any other aspect of his life, is how much depth went into Bob Dylan’s artistic creations. Dylan writes about the more obvious, influential artists that affected him, such as Woody Guthrie, but he also writes about the obscure musicians he encountered on his path, that affected him in ways large and small. He also writes about the manner in which reading literature informed his artistic persona, reading everyone from prominent poets and fiction writers, to the Ancient Greek philosophers, and he finally informs us of how other experiences in his life informed him. The reader will close the book with the idea that the young Dylan wasn’t seeking a road map to stardom so much as he was learning the art of craftsmanship.

On this subject of craft, as it pertains to the death of rock and roll, the bassist from Kiss, Gene Simmons, informed Esquire:

“The craft is gone, and that is what technology, in part, has brought us. What is the next Dark Side of the Moon? Now that the record industry barely exists, they wouldn’t have a chance to make something like that. There is a reason that, along with the usual top-40 juggernauts, some of the biggest touring bands are half old people, like me.”

On the subject of craft and being derivative, we could argue that Dark Side of the Moon was derivative. We could also argue that Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin were all derivative. We could argue that rock and roll, itself, derived from rhythm and blues, and that rhythm and blues derived their sound from the blues, jazz, and swing music. There is no sin in being derivative, in other words, as most artists derived something from another influence, but the question of how derivative an artist is has often haunted most artists that derived their craft from other, more obscure artists. The question most artists have had to ask, internally and otherwise, is how much personal innovation did they add to their influences? Perhaps more important to this discussion is a question of how much room was left in the zeitgeist for variation on the theme their influence created? To quote the cliché, a time will arrive in any art form, when a future artist is attempting to squeeze blood out of a turnip, and while the room for derivatives and variations on the broad theme of rock and roll seemed so vast at one time, every art form eventually runs into a wall.

One could say that the first wave of rock and roll that didn’t spend too much time worrying about how derivative it was, was the Heavy Metal era of 80’s hair metal bands. One could also say that they didn’t have to search too deep, at that time, because the field still yielded such a bountiful harvest. All they had to do was provide a decent derivative of a theme some 70’s bands derived from some 60’s band that were derivatives of 50’s bands, and so on and so forth. There was still something so unique at the heart of what they were doing, in that space in time, that they could develop what amounted to a subtle variation of a theme and still be considered somewhat unique.

At some point in this chain of variations and strains, the wellspring dried up for 80’s hair metal bands, and they became a mockery of former artists, until rock and roll was in dire need a new template. At this point, right here, many proclaimed the death of rock and roll. They claimed that rock and roll was now more about hairspray, eyeliner, and MTV than actual music. Into that void, stepped Guns N’ Roses, Faith No More, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and others. They provided unique variations at the tail end of the 80’s and early 90’s. At various points in the timeline, a variation always stepped up to keep the beast alive, but hindsight informs us that rock and roll was, indeed, on life support at this time. Hindsight also informs us, that when the 90’s Seattle bands, and The Smashing Pumpkins, stepped to the fore, their derived variation on the theme was, in essence, a reset of the template that had been lost somewhere in the late 80’s, as they brought rock back to the early Kiss, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith records of the 70’s.

This begs the question, would Nirvana have been as huge as they were, if they appeared on the scene around 1983-1984, or would that have been too early for them? Are musical waves little more than a question of timing? Did Nirvana hit the scene at a time when the desire to recapture whatever was lost in the late 80’s was widespread? The Nevermind album may have been so good that it would’ve sold in just about any rock era, but would Nevermind have outsold Quiet Riot’s Mental Health and Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry, or would it have been too derivative of an era we just experienced? Would Nevermind have been the ten million copies shipped phenomenon it was if it hit the scene in 1984, or was it a valiant attempt to recapture what was lost in rock that we needed at the time?

Most of the musicians, in what rock critics called the grunge movement, had varied tastes, and some of their favorite artists were more obscure than the general public’s, but the basic formula for what would critics called grunge could be found in those four groups of musicians, from the 70’s, that had deep and varied influences. The grunge era, we could say, was the last innovative, derivative movement of nuanced rock.

Talk to just about any young person in America today, and they may list off some modern artists and groups that they listen to, but most of rock connoisseurs will provide “classic rock” band as one of their favorite genres. When someone my age hears the term classic rock, they’re more prone to think of one of the 70’s bands mentioned earlier, but these young people are referring to bands that were brand new to me somewhere around yesterday, yesterday being twenty years ago.

I know I run the risk of being dismissed as an old fogy when I declare rock dead, or something along the lines of “Today’s music ain’t got the same soul”, but there is something that is missing. In fairness to modern artists, and in full recognition of my old codger perspective, I have to ask how the “next big thing” will pop out, right now, in 2016, and offer the world a perspective on rock that no one has ever considered before? Such a statement does undercut the creative brilliance that young minds have to offer, but to those of us who have listened to everyone from top of the line artists to some of the more obscure artists in recording history, it seems to me that every genre, subgenre, experimentation, and variation has been covered to this point.

Gene Simmons asked where the next Dark Side of the Moon is going to come from, I ask where the next Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is, and it may be a question that led those of another era to ask what artist is the modern day equivalent to The Carter Family? I never thought I’d be this guy, but most of the modern rock music sounds uninformed and lacking in the foundation that previous generations had. I know this is largely incorrect, but when I listen to the rock bands of the current era, I don’t hear the long, varied search for influence Bob Dylan sought. I don’t hear artists hearkening back the rich and varied tradition old blues singers, folk musicians, and country artists learned from their family and friends in gospel songs at church, at campfires, and at night before going to bed. It might be there, but I don’t hear an informed artistic persona. Their music lacks some of the organic funk R&B musicians brought to the fold, and the intricate instrumentation that the 50’s and 60’s jazz musicians left for their successors to mine.

Some consider this entire argument moot, however, and they say that the nature of music and art in general, suggests that there will always be an innovative, up and coming star who develops variations and derivatives of former artists if there is money in it. Naysayers would echo their favorite artists and say it’s not about the money, and true art never should be. While that may be true, it is also true that when the money is removed, as the Gene Simmons quote below states, there may not be people in the upper reaches of the chain who are willing to develop that talent, when the whole model is thrown into chaos, and the structure of it is destroyed.

It’s About the Money. It’s Always About the Money.

“You’re (now considered) a sucker if you pay for music,” one of my friends informed me at what was, for me, the advent of file sharing. 

My friend did not say the words “now considered” but that was the import of his statement. I was no Luddite. I knew about the file sharing sites, such as Napster, but for me, Napster was a place to find obscure throwaways, bootlegged versions of the songs I loved, and cover songs, by my favorite artists. I learned of the Metallica lawsuit against Napster, and some talk of file sharing among the young, but I had no idea that the crossover to file sharing had already begun, for most music enthusiasts, until my friend dropped this line on me.

The line did not inform me of the new way of attaining music, as I already knew it was out there, but it informed me of the new mindset in regards to accessing music. After scouring these sites for my favorite songs, albums, and artists, (and finding them, waiting to be downloaded for free) one thing became crystal clear, this was going to change everything. I read of the music industry hauling young people into court after illegally downloading music, but my astute, file sharing friend said he believed that the music industry was desperate, and that they were trying to scare people. He correctly predicted that the music industry would stop trying to prosecute people and simply give in. He said that they should’ve done something long before this point (and this point was very early on in the age of file sharing) to cash in on the file sharing wave. He said that there were simply too many people, from his small corner of the world, downloading music for free, for the music industry to prosecute them all.

File sharing, say some, may have spelled the true death of rock and roll as a profitable, cultural force in America today. I write this as a qualifier for those who suggest that the idea that a bunch of kids sitting in a garage to develop a new sound will never die. It may not, but reading through Gene Simmons’ interview in Esquire, a reader learns of the type of support that new musicians need from execs in the upper echelon of the music industry to help them progress from garage rockers to a cultural force in America, and that that part of the structure has been destroyed by file sharing. To belabor this point for just a moment, we would all prefer to believe that our favorite musicians have little regard for money, or corporate influence, but how much of the sound of an album was tweaked, finessed, and completed by industry money? Listen to insiders speak of a final product, and they’ll tell the reader that the album doesn’t sound anything like it might have without a high quality producer, and it doesn’t sound anything like it did before the corporate mixer came in and put in some finishing touches that those of us in the audience know nothing about.

Rock and roll’s appeal has always been a young person’s game, however, and that makes most of the derivative argument moot. Most young people live in the now, and young people have never cared that their favorite artist happened to be a hybrid between The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, at least not to the point that they wouldn’t buy their favorite artists’ albums. As far as they were concerned, their favorite band’s sound, and look, was fresh, original, and theirs.

“My sense is that file sharing started in predominantly white, middle- and upper-middle-class young people who were native-born, who felt they were entitled to have something for free, because that’s what they were used to,” Gene Simmons also said in the Esquire interview. “If you believe in capitalism — and I’m a firm believer in free-market capitalism — then that other model is chaos. It destroys the structure.”

Death of the Album

Scouring these file sharing sites, and creating personalized playlists, I also sensed a death of the album. As an album-oriented listener, I always thought one could arrive at the artistic persona of a musician in the deeper cuts of an album. My philosophy was fleshed out by Sting, and his, “Anyone can write a hit, but it takes an artist to write an excellent album” quote. I was affected by the new file-sharing mindset almost immediately, as I began to consider it a waste of time to listen to the various Queen Jane Approximately cuts, when I could create a playlist filled with top shelf, Like a Rolling Stone cuts from various artists.

The idea of the self-directed, playlist mindset developed somewhere around the advent of the cassette tape, an era that predated me, but the full album managed to maintain most of its glory throughout that era. For most of my life, the power of a quality single led concertgoers to leap out of their seat and rush the stage. With all these new tools, however, a person no longer has to stand around for an hour waiting for the band to take the stage. They no longer have to sit through mind-numbing guitar solos, and witty banter from the lead singer to get to the one song they enjoy from that artist. They could now go to a site like YouTube to watch their favorite singer sing that quality single.

I still think that the lack of depth in most products current artists put out is a factor in the demise of rock as a force in the industry. I am persuaded that that is not the case by the idea that young people know as little about the history of their music as their favorite artists do, however, and what little they do know is superseded by how little they care about it.

I am also convinced that file sharing has had an effect, if not a devastating effect, on the structure from top to bottom. Another writer had an interesting take on this matter, stating that the file sharing mindset may have something to do with young people growing up watching their favorite artists display their wares on shows like MTV’s Cribs. Shows like these may have led young people to think that their favorite artist has enough money as it is, and the shows may have led the young people to download the music for free without guilt. Which, in turn, led them to believe anyone who plops down money for music is an absolute sucker for supporting the artist’s hedonistic lifestyle. 

“They’re not going to miss any meals if I deprive them of my $9.99,” they might say. That may be true in the case of this individual, but what happens when millions of people begin sharing this mindset? What happens is that when we begin removing the $9.99 bricks that formed the foundation of the industry, until we destroy the industry, as we knew it. They will sign fewer rock artists, they will no longer hire all those little guys who helped finish the product, and they will no longer provide support or promotion to an album that would’ve garnered it before, because there’s little-to-no money in it for any of the players, on any level.

Whether it’s the lack of depth, or the idea that music no longer affords an artist enough money to make an honest living at it, thanks to file sharing, it does appear that the starving artist walking around with nothing more than a guitar strapped to his back has become an endangered animal in America today, and the consequences for that could run deep for a culture that has subsisted on the philosophical foundation of rock music for as long as most of us have been alive.

How to Succeed in Writing VI: Follow guidelines, and let your freak flag fly!


Mike Patton

“There’s a right way to do things, and a wrong way!”  My Dad used to say. “And you always choose the wrong way!”  All artists have a natural proclivity to doing things the other way, a different way, and “the wrong way”.  Those who want to write a best-seller, sing a top 40 song, or sell a mainstream painting, study up on the trends of the market, and they have all their formulas for success spelled out for them in the various “self-help” guides that are available in the marketplace.  Artists, true artists, are the freaks, the odd balls, and the weirdoes of our society.

If these artists didn’t have certain predilections in life, they probably would’ve been better athletes in high school, and more popular, and less inclined to eventually have the angst that drove them to do what they would ended up doing.  They probably would’ve made better employees, better spouses, better parents, and better people.  Their people probably would’ve enjoyed their company more if they fell in line with the practiced repetitions that led to better muscle memory in all these avenues of life.  They probably would’ve been happier people and fit into society better, but they chose a different path in life.

Marcel Proust

“Everything great in the world comes from Neurotics.  They alone have founded our religion and composed our masterpieces,” –Marcel Proust.

To say that an artist chooses his path in life is a bit of a misnomer, for most artists fell into expression as a form of therapy.  They’ve usually had an incident, or a series of incidents, that they couldn’t quite get past in the accepted ways, but they made decisions on how to deal with them in their own way.  Most artists didn’t “reach out” for others to help them deal with that which plagued them, or if they did they recognized the fact that most people don’t care about other people’s problems.  Either that, or they didn’t receive any satisfaction from sympathetic responses.  Most artists internalized their pain, until it exploded into some form of expression.

Expression meant free-form expression to them early on.  It meant being outrageous, and offensive, and playing the game by their own rules.  If they had good mentors though, they learned that much of this resulted in sloppy and undisciplined work.  The whole reason they entered this field of expression was to expunge the toxins they had coursing through their veins, but their mentors told them there were rules and guidelines to doing this properly.  Most artists angrily accepted that fact.  They believed that artists should think outside the box, but they learned that true artists would eventually have to know what was in the box is if they ever hoped to violate it properly.

A friend of mine is not artistic, but he reads a lot of novels, and he knows their rules.  He also gets bogged down in details.  He circles offensive material, and he suggests that I delete, or edit, those portions.  He doesn’t know art in this sense, and he doesn’t care.  He knows the rules of society, and how those rules were applied by Hemingway and Faulkner, and he knows I’m offensive.  This friend wouldn’t be able to write one word of fiction.  He could get so boxed in by the rules that every word would be written, edited, and then deleted.  He would write a novel that would be as entertaining as an instructional manual for a park bench, or the proper use of fly paper.  He would’ve made a better editor, if he came to that crossroad.

The differences between an individual who knows the rules, but doesn’t know how to apply them in an artistic manner, are the differences between an artistic writer and an editor.  Take a look at some of the names of the people who have written the articles on developing the perfect character, or the most dynamic conflict.  You’ve probably never heard of them, for they know as little about writing an artistic novel as you do.  Some people are excellent editors and teachers, but they know little to nothing about being an artist.  The opposite is usually true of artists, and this is why freelance editors are making such a great living in the age of the rule breaking, freelance eBook writer.  It is also why the advice of most artists, such as myself, is to just do it.  Don’t talk about writing, don’t hold yourself up as a writer when you don’t write, and don’t complain about the arduous process involved.  Just do it!  Doing it, will help you figure out why you can do it or not.  The other important note on this topic is that those who teach can’t teach you how to write your novel.  They can give you general guidelines that you’ll need to know, but they can’t teach you the art of writing, and the art of letting your freak flag fly, in the vein that you’ll  learn by just doing it.  I’m not saying that their advice is without merit, but don’t let yourself get bogged down in the detail.