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.

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.

Free Your Mind and Creativity Will Follow


“You just sit there young man, and think about what you’ve done!” is something that most of us have heard at one point or another.  We’ve heard this from a mother, a grandmother, or some authority figure in our lives.  Sitting in silence is an excellent punishment for a young mind that wants to move, explore, and participate, and the negative connotations we apply to such forced inactivity, may be the reason that some of us still avoid it as often as we can.  For some minds, however, it may be the key to tapping into untapped resources of creativity.

Ardent advocates of noise would disagree.  They would suggest that the best way to find that creative place occurs in the exchange of ideas.  The distracted mind, they would say, requires forced participation.  They also say that suggesting these minds need more space, and more silence, may allow the cracks of distraction to grow wider.

moronThe very idea that silence should play a role in the creative process seems antithetical to everything we’ve been taught. We, as a people, have spent so much time trying to create technological advances that put an end to silence that we’re now conditioned to believe that cluttering our minds with voices and images may lead us to finding individual, creative thought in that stew.  Some do, of course, as every brain works different.  Those that require more processing of information –conditioned to the same beliefs about the creative process– may buy a self-help guide to find out what’s wrong with them.  For them, the source of creative thinking can, more often than not, be found in the brain itself … If it is allowed to breathe a little.

As Dorothy Gauvin stated:

“Your mind makes connections between facts and experiences that may seem unrelated to a logical entity like a robot.  Imagination connects the dots and comes up with an ‘Aha moment’ we call inspiration.”

These technological distractions that we have, and all of the noise of the day, prevents our imagination from taking what we’ve learned to that place where all the dots can be connected to produce a creative thought, or what Ms. Gauvin calls ‘an Aha moment’.

“Remember the famous quote from A.A.Milne,” she writes, ‘Sometimes I sit and think and sometimes I just sits.’”

Some of us spent most of our time outside of the Socratic Method of teaching looking in.  We’ve witnessed other brains firing right along with the teacher’s.  The teacher hits them with a question, they fire right back; the teacher probes deeper, the students respond in kind, and a summary discussion ensues in which all participants are rewarded with like-minded smiles when they’ve reached the same conclusion.  Some of us have always wanted to be those people, and we have been … the next day.  The next day, we arrived in that class with an answer that would’ve knock our teacher right on her keister … If we had thought of it yesterday.  We wanted a do over.  We wanted to show the class that we had the perfect answer.  It was too late for us, of course, the class moved on.

Every mind works different.  Some minds are excellent for business, and school, and they can come up with the perfect solution on the spot.  With that perfect guide, they can delve deeper into the depths of the mathematical mind than either party imagined possible, or they do it so quick that some of us stare on dumbfounded.

The spoils for thinking often go to the quick, and that fact has led some of us to believe that we were the dumb.  Our “Aha moments” do arrive, but they arrived when we were walking down the stairs, after the meat of the discussion has long since passed, and we thought of all the things we could’ve and should’ve said. Our minds work different, and even if we realized this in school, we may not have been rewarded in the manner the quicker minds were, but it may have been less frustrating or embarrassing to realize that our brains work different.

If you have a “down the stairs, could’ve, should’ve said” brain, Ms. Gauvin writes, you may want to consider the idea of developing a routine that involves a moment, or a series of moments, where all you do is sit in silence to digest what you’ve experienced.  She writes that some meditate, some contemplate, and some “just sits” there in a manner that “suits their circumstances and personality”.  She says that once you figure out how your brain works, you should consider creating a regular period in which you experience silence in the manner high profile “professionals in Medicine, Sports, and the Arts” all do.

Feathers

“Free your mind, the rest will follow.” —En Vogue

Years after reading the brilliant, Raymond Carver short story Feathers,  I reread it.  I was confused.  I went back to the title of that story to make sure it was the same short story I read all those years ago and recommended to everyone I knew that expressed even a slight interest in fiction.  It was the same short story, of course, and it was just as good as I remembered, but I had so jumbled the details of that story that I misremembered it into an original short story.

Carver’s short story was so great that I experienced a creative high after reading it.  As an aspiring, young writer, I have to imagine that reading that story was equivalent to a young basketball player watching Michael Jordan drive the baseline against the Knicks in the 1993 playoffs.  Carver, like Jordan, made it look so easy that I thought I could do it.

The focus of Carver’s story was, of course, the main characters, but my focus churned on the side characters.  I identified with them in some manner I couldn’t grasp at first.  I decided to explore.  I decided that this exploration was worthy of a short story, my short story.

Upon rereading Feathers years later, I realized that the side characters were so far removed from the ones that I had created that no lawyer in the land could prove an infringement on, or plagiarism of, Carver’s material.  After getting over that initial spate of confusion, and some feelings of being so stupid as to misremeber those characters, I realized that I had come up with my first original “quality” short story.  And all of those leaps occurred in quiet moments where all I did was ‘sit and think’ about them and the short story, and my relation to them.

The Sounds of Silence

Silence can be difficult to find at times.  We spend so much of our time trying to keep our minds active, focused, and participatory that we’ve cluttered it with noise, under the proviso that “No TV and no beer make Homer crazy”, until we’ve reached a point where our lives are drained of silence.

If you’re one that needs a creative space of silence, and you’re able to find time for it, it’s important to note that there is no specific quantity of silence from which creativity is born.  Laying out such a provocative idea may lead some to say that it doesn’t work for them.  “I tried it,” they will say. “It ain’t for me.”  Our natural retort will be, “Well, how long did you try it?  How much effort did you put into it?”  It’s a pointless –square peg in a round role– discussion for some, of course, because all minds are different.  For those creative minds that don’t know how their brains work yet, and the others that have to deal with them, this may be an eye-opener.  For those that experience writer’s block, or creative fatigue, silence may be the one method they haven’t tried yet.

interactionYour silence should be drained of distractions.  We all have minor distractions that pervade our silence, such as what sassy Susie said to us the other day; the delicious burger that we’re planning to eat tonight; reliving the Blackhawks championship run; and how the stand-up comedian described going to the bathroom in the toilet tank as going top shelf, and we all have an almost unnatural propensity to dwell on those ideas.  To void your mind of such distractions, I like to think of the process the Tom Cruise character went through in the movie Minority Report, when interacting with the futuristic gestural interface to find the information he wanted in its database.

Not all silence should be active, or focused, but it does require a certain degree of participation to find the undiluted creative area.  Focusing yourself into specifics is difficult, of course, but if you can swipe these distractions away, you can achieve various specific, creative thoughts on the subjects of your own choosing.  The key to creative thought, in my opinion, is to create an eighth day in which you, the god of your creation, can rest with everything that hit you in the previous seven days.  The key is to avoid putting headphones on when you jog, mow, or workout at the gym.  Some may go so far as to “just sits” in a quiet room, others may take long drives alone to nowhere with the radio in the off position.

I found the perfect vehicle for freeing my mind, a while back, when I got myself the most brainless job imaginable.  I didn’t do that for this purpose, of course.  When I was forced, by management, to do away with all distractions for the ostensible purpose of placing all of my focus on a job that I could’ve accomplished in early R.E.M. stages, I achieved a state of blankness.  Not everyone is as fortunate as I was to have found such a tedious job, I understand, and for those of you forced to focus on a demanding job will need to find another avenue, but many have found silent moments to stew.

This blaring horn of creative silence can also be found in the most innocuous places like a doctor’s waiting room.  My advice: once you reach that point where you’ve waited so long that you’re so bored that the urge to pick up that magazine –you’d never read otherwise–overwhelms you, fight that urge.  Fight that urge and stare out at the dregs of humanity that wait with you.  Look at that guy with tousled hair and frayed jeans, in a short-sleeved shirt, and wonder why no one ever taught him how to dress.  When you’re engaged in the monotony of lawn work, fight the urge to wear headphones, and pick those dandelions naked … without aural accompaniment, or stimuli of any kind.  Free the mind from everything that you’ve been jamming into it for the previous seven days, and “just sits there” on an eighth day of rest, and the rest will follow.

The Creativity


Bill Cosby had a show called Kids say the Darndest Things, and they did say the darndest things on the show. We all did at that age, but we all knew that we would have to grow out of that if it was our goal to be taken serious. Those of us who wouldn’t, had to be institutionalized into the ways of human operations (i.e. school), if we ever hoped to mature properly. Some of us matured into good business assets, fathers, and occasional games men. For the most part, however, those fantastical ideas were required to be laid by the roadside in the pursuit of a quality, adult life.

Some of us remain trapped in a fantastical mindset, and while we led a good life, and had a good wife, we haven’t matured to the point that we can meld a serious life with a fantastical mindset. We all know people who cling a little too much to fantasy, and while we try not to think less of them, it can prove difficult to take them serious. These people are apt to have an unhealthy addiction to gaming, science fiction, vampires, and now zombies. These people, depending on the progression of their fantastical mind, often have little to nothing to offer corporate America.

sct star trek.jpgOthers have all the foolishness of unconventional thinking, and fantasy, behind them early on. They are often children of ultra-serious parents who want their children devoid of foolish thinking. These people eventually get so locked in on serious, or conventional, ways of thinking that they end up neglecting that part of their brain that indulges in fantasy, art, and creativity for so long that they ignore a huge ingredient of what it means to be human. They eventually veer so far into the serious side of life that they become disgusted by creative thinkers. They “don’t have time” for such silliness. They have developed the tunnel vision necessary to compete in the corporate world, and they can’t understand people that don’t have a master plan. These people usually have a mathematical equation for life.

They prefer the absolutes inherent in the Superman story over the cloudy interpretations offered to the Batman character. They prefer the concrete absolutes of standard music over any creative music that messes with the formula, and they prefer the more standard comedy of Everybody Loves Raymond over the comedic study of intangibles on Seinfeld. These are bottom line people who will tell you all you need to know in life to succeed are two words: “Yes sir!”

At some point, this type usually crashes and burn under the weight of all that seriousness. The purchases they’ve made to substantiate their status begins to lose their luster, the family no longer interests them in a substantial manner, and the career they’ve worked their whole lives for has suddenly become meaningless to them. When they reach that point, they either seek the fantasy of an adulterous affair, a job change, or a move to another state. At some point, the master plan loses value, and they become perpetually unsatisfied with their direction. These people can be just as unhappy as the fantastically minded, and neurologists say that the only thing keeping them from utter insanity is the fantasy they experience in the dream world while sleeping. Everyone tells artists to have something to fall back on, in case their creative pursuits never come to fruition, but you rarely hear anything like this directed at conventional thinkers that succeed in conventional ways with nothing fulfilling the side of their brain that contains healthy ingredients of play and fantasy.

KidThe healthiest mindset, and the one probably most difficult to achieve is the matured, creative mind. The matured, creative mind is one that has progressed beyond the fantastical thoughts of youth to a more practical hybrid of conventionally unconventional thinking. The problem they generally have is how to make their unconventional thoughts productive, practical and profitable, for as anyone who has worked in a corporation knows it’s not exactly a conducive climate for unconventional thinkers. In this equation, of course, the onus is on the creative mind to make their talents know to their bosses.

Some, like CEO Steve Jobs suggests that anyone unable to reach their creative peak, should try hallucinogenics. This statement made some creative types think that Steve Jobs wasn’t as creative as we had all been led to believe. It made some of us think that he views creative types from the same, jealous distance conventional thinkers view creative types. How many times have we heard non-creative types assign drug usage to creative types? “They had to be on something to achieve that,” they say. “No normal human could create something like that, sober.” Those of us who have flirted with creative thought encounter epiphanies on a much lower scale, know that the mind can be mined with constant work, and it can produce incredibly creative thoughts without artificial aid. Jobs’ comment was such a shock from such a creative mind that we wondered how creative he is. If he were that creative, why would he feed into that cliché?

Those who know the story of Apple, know that Steve Wozniak was the creative genius behind the Apple I and II, and he had a major influence on the Apple Macintosh. We didn’t know the instrumental role Jonathon Ive played as the chief architects of the iPod, and that he was a part of a team that included: Jon Rubenstein, Scott Forstall, Michael Dhuey, and Tony Fadell. We learned that while Jobs may have overseen the project, these names were the creative types behind the final product we know today.

Jobs’ role in the insurgence, and resurgence, of Apple is unquestioned, but the undue credit he received (see took) for the iPod outraged those on the creative team that sweat blood over it. Jobs was the leader of the company at the time, and he changed the company’s culture to “think different”, and he eliminated distractions to provide more focus. He may have been overly demanding with the aesthetics, the processes and the machinations, and he may have remained stubbornly unsatisfied with what he termed “unfinished” products. He may have gotten more out of his creatives than anyone in his market, and in the end he was the “guy in charge” of the company that created something that was unmatched in its field, but Steve Jobs did not deserve the amount of creative credit he took for the products it produced. And some creative types were partial to the complaints his creative teams made, after Steve Jobs said all creative types should take drugs to increase their creativity.

The primary reason it bothered us is that it’s the typical charge that all conventional thinkers make about creative types that create something conventional thinkers consider inhumanly creative. I don’t know if this “They had to have been on some wild drugs” cliché began with The Beatles, but it does appear to be one of the origins of the charge. The other reason that it bothered creative types is that it allowed non-creative types to feel more comfortable in their serious, mathematical world: “Well, I could create something like that too, if I decided to take all those drugs.”

When it first came out that Led Zeppelin sold their souls to the devil, this made sense to a number of my friends, because, “No one could come up with that many great songs on their own.” When these friends grew out of such fantastical notions, they changed their minds on the subject saying that “corporate guys, or unaccredited songwriters, must have stepped in there and changed, mixed, altered, or finessed the final product, because there’s no way Page and Plant wrote all those songs alone.” Or, they say, “They must’ve been stoned out of their minds to think up things like these.” It bothers creative minds, because we know it’s possible to reach unbelievably creative planes without artificial substances, and those who have tried some artificial substances don’t see how an altered state of consciousness can lend itself to productive creativity. It’s been our experience that that artificial creativity is mostly nonsensical.

pynchonIt could be that continued use of hallucinogenic drugs teaches one to finesse creativity in an altered state, but most truly creative minds only experiment with altered states, and most of them found that it didn’t enhance their creativity. Unfortunately, in the case of The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin, it appears as if they either created, or fed into, this misconception.

That cliché was born, in my opinion, based on the frustration that non-creative types have for those that are excessively creative. These people can accept that a bunch of fellas could sit around and write Back in Black, or Eliminator, but “You’re trying to tell me that three guys (John Paul Jones) came up with Led Zeppelin IIZosoand Physical Graffiti? Sober? With their souls still intact? Come on!? There’s just no way.”

Some non-creative types make the same charge with Albert Einstein. They state that the autopsy performed on Einstein’s body showed traces of LSD, as well as Dimethyl-triptimene in his system. They also state that his heart exploding could’ve easily have been caused by years of cocaine use. This led all non-creative types to almost leap with joy, as it confirmed for them the fact that no one man could think all that stuff up, not sober, with his soul intact. As we all know, these opiates were common, at the turn of the century in medicines and painkillers, so the fact that they were in his body, at the time of his death, doesn’t necessarily indicate that Einstein used them recreationally, or to enhance his creativity. “It was still in his system,” non-creative types would argue, “and whether he took these opiates for medicine or recreationally, it’s possible that it affected him.” It’s also possible that it didn’t.

EinsteinHow many people looked up to the stars and tried to figure out the ways of the universe prior to Einstein? How many of them ingested the same opiates, whether or not it was deemed medicinal? How many of those same people had all of the same information on the abstract concepts, and couldn’t make meaning of them in the categorical manner Einstein did by picturing himself riding a light ray bareback? “By picturing himself riding a light ray bareback, you say? Yeah, he had to be on some serious stuff to think like that. That ain’t normal.”

Einstein also said that playing the violin helped him make sense of the universe by helping him make a connection with sense-experiences. Is that something a drug-user would say? Perhaps, but here’s something that could blow your mind, so if you’re not prepared for it read no further, but it’s possible, possible that a person could indulge in different thoughts so often, that they produced creative ideas that are unimaginable to those who have never indulged in creative thinking.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” Einstein once said to define insanity. 

Einstein thought differently, and he thought so differently, so often, that he was able to approach the problems from so many different angles that he ended up approaching these problems in ways conventional thinkers couldn’t fathom. They still can’t fathom it, so they suggest that it had to be drugs.

Those of us that have read extensively of the creative process know that the creative process doesn’t usually involve highlight reels, similar to those of athletes, and they usually don’t have fans in the stands that “were there” when the star was born. Most creative people came about their matured creativity naturally, for creativity cannot be taught. It can be workshopped, and it can be finessed day by day and interaction by interaction, but no one can teach another person how to be brilliantly creative. For that reason, and for all the reasons listed above, creativity remains a largely unexplained phenomenon, but it sits better in conventional minds to think that the only thing that separates them from thinking creatively is the use of drugs.