Today’s Music Ain’t Got the Same Soul

As a former AOP (album oriented person), I have finally come to realize that most songs, on most albums, by most artists, are crap.  It’s a tough admission for me to make, especially after decades of fighting against my “single-loving” friends on this very issue.

downloadThe Beatles may be one of the few exceptions to this rule.  The Beatles made about five albums that were almost top to bottom perfect, but then again they had three bona fide songwriters in their group.  Those three songwriters could usually write one to two great songs a piece for the albums The Beatles would release on an annual and biannual basis.  When The Beatles broke up, these three artists continued that trend.  They would write one to two great songs on solo albums that they would usually release on a semi-annual basis.  One of those songs would get extensive airplay on the radio, and we would all run out and buy the album.  To our disappointment, there would probably be only one other song on their solo albums that could be enjoyed long-term.  A couple of the other songs on those albums were self-indulgent, political rants, and the rest were just filler.  Led Zeppelin may be one of the other another exceptions, but they sold their souls to the devil, and there’s Queen, but Queen had four solid songwriters in their band.

There are other exceptions to the rule of course, and I’m sure you have them in mind, but were those exceptions the first album your guys made for a major label?  If that’s the case, you have to ask yourself how many years of writing went into the making of that first album?  If that’s the case, I submit that that first album was a compendium of all the years this artist(s) spent as a struggling, starving artist.  Kurt Cobain once said that if he knew what he was doing, he would’ve spaced out all the songs on the album Nevermind, to presumably allow some of those single songs to appear as lead singles for forthcoming albums.

From what I understand of the business, and I understand very little, this first album usually generates little to no money for the artist.  The reason for this is that the record company assumes all the financial risk for this unknown artist on their first album, and this unknown artist is usually so eager to sign with a major label that they forego most of their rights.  Most new artists have little-to-no pull in the signing process, and most labels take advantage of them on that basis.  Most labels are also hesitant to give a lot of money to a new artist, because they know that most new artists will go out and ruin their minds and bodies on drugs and alcohol with all of their new found money.  Other than the objective to make the most money they can off the artist, they might also want to keep the artists hungry enough to produce at least one more great album.

After the artist is raped by the label on the first contract for the first album, they’re usually bled dry by the lawyers who try to rectify that first deal.  This gives them the hunger necessary to complete a second album.  This second album is usually rushed by the artist, the label, the lawyers, and all of those with their hands in the pot trying to cash in on the success of the first album.  It usually sells well, based on the success of the first one, and the critics usually label this effort “the sophomore jinx”.  The second album usually contains the “could’ve beens” and “should’ve beens” that didn’t make the cut on the first album, and that album usually sounds rushed, sporadic, and often times sub par, but you can’t blame the artist too much for wanting some of the money they missed out on with the first album.  If the artist was allowed some time to write a new single, and some time is usually reserved solely for studio time in the world of music –because most artists are artistic on their time– you may get one marginal-to-good song on this record that would’ve been a better-than-average filler song on the first album.

“Wait one cotton-picking moment here,” you say. “The artist I listen to says that they don’t do it for the money.”  That’s just good business.  Very few artists, outside the for reals world of rap artists, would tell you they’re in it for the money.  If they believe it is about the money, and for some it is, then they’re probably not very good artists.  For those that are quality artists, that love the art form, money is a happy byproduct that pays the rent and the grocery bills.  Money allows the artist the free time necessary to concentrate on their craft, and that is important even if they won’t admit it.  If an artist is in it solely for the money (or the fame), if they’re being for reals, they’re probably producing the schlock that comprises most of the Top 40.  It is about the money though, for those artists that truly know their craft, and have some idea of the business side, know that when a customer hands over dollars for product, they’re complimenting such products in a manner that allows the artist to keep producing said products.

Sting once said: “Anyone can write a hit, but it takes a true artist to write an album of excellent material.” 

If that’s the case, there just aren’t as many artists out there nowadays.  Either that or my patience for half-hearted material has diminished, because there appears to have been a dearth of great albums in the last ten years.  My guess is either there are fewer spectacular artists out there nowadays, or we have over-estimated these artists in the music field for decades.  Perhaps these artists were never were as intelligent, or as brilliant, as rock journalists led us to believe.  I’m not just taking about the members of ‘80’s hairbands in this critique, or the starlet that tries to show off her body parts to remain relevant.  I’m talking about our favorite artists.  I’m talking about the seminal artists that have graced the covers of corporate magazines for decades.  I’m talking about the artists that the marketing arms of these corporate magazines, and the corporate labels, have led us to believe were complicated geniuses.  Maybe they were just better than most at crafting an image, maybe they are not as deep as we perceived them to be, and maybe we need re-evaluate our definition of the term “musical genius” based on the fact that they can’t come out with three decent songs every two years.

If we are to judge an artist based upon their albums, and not their singles, then we have to assume that they’re not very deep.  The Beatles came out with nearly three albums a year in the 60’s, and they came out with some complete albums, top to bottom.  With today’s artist, we’re lucky if they come out with an album every two years, and as I said those albums usually only produce two decent songs on average.  Whatever the case is, I usually make my own albums out of all of the singles and some of the secondary songs released today.  The rest of the songs released by these complicated artists are just drivel.  Thanks iTunes!

Something About Dreams

I used to think I would eventually become Batman, but I wasn’t willing to do the work it took. After reading the comics and waking up at six a.m. to watch the Superfriends cartoon to learn the formula, I realized that I would have to buy a number of gadgets. I was on a limited budget at the time, I think I was seven, and I realized it wasn’t going to be cost-effective. There were a number of other complications that arose that I won’t go into, but I never did become Batman. When I got a little older, I decided on the Fonz. He had a confluence of nerdiness and coolness that I could never quite tap into, but it seemed attainable to me, then there were my dreams of becoming Walter Payton and Johnny Jefferson, and finally Stephen King.

I was young, and these fantasies were powerful forces in my mind. I thought there was something special about me, and when I say special I’m not talking about Grandma rubbing my hair and telling me I’m special. I mean really special, I mean my whole world would be shocked when they found out the truth special. When I would get a bad grade, or when a teacher told me I wasn’t cutting it; when a bully would pick on me, or I would be ostracized from the ‘in crowd’ in some way; or when I went through those normal, insecure moments of doubt and indecision that weigh down the mind of an adolescent, I would fantasize about them finding out the real me that existed beneath what they thought they knew of me. I thought that I had an alter-ego that only I knew.

At a certain point in time, I realized that all I would ever be is me. Some have wanted to be more than what they are, and some have wanted to be less. I pretended like I was more, at times, to impress people, and I’ve pretended like I was less to gain their sympathy and empathy. It never did me a damn bit of good one way or another. I’ve thought I was more than whatever job I was working at the time. I’ve thought that the company was not using my skill set properly, and then I realized that I was the one not using his skill set properly. I was the one who chose this job after all, but I knew that I needed that alter-ego to get through the day and the job. It’s a part of who I am. I’ve also thought that I was less than the job I’m in. I see all these people around me, with their glorious numbers, and I would think that should be me. I have the potential, but I don’t have the wherewithal to get her done, and I didn’t care about all that at the same time. That’s not me, I would say, I know my potential, but is that potential the Batman alter-ego potential that they’ll never know, or that I’ll never know entirely?

I love to tell jokes that don’t get a laugh. I love to bomb like Johnny Carson and Andy Kaufman did. I’ve had people tell me I’m not funny more than once. My apologies to those of you who thought you were the first. The truth is I love that more than if someone were to tell me I’m funny. Yeah, I don’t entirely get it either. I loved David Lynch movies in which nothing seemed to happen and no one said much. People hate those movies. Trust me, I’ve talked to them and sat through the movies with them. Mike Patton’s music turns me on. People say it’s not music. They say it’s just some guy screaming and yipping and yiping for three minutes like Warner Brother’s Tasmanian Devil on crack. I’m not a tool, but rules are important to me. If you don’t know the rules, or don’t have them, what is there to rebel against? I used to religiously seek non-conformity, until I realized that there was a degree of conformity to the non-conformity I sought. I used to think that the key to intellectually superiority was in secular avenues, until I realized that I wasn’t even listening to the other side. When I began listening to the other side, I began listening to the secular, more liberal side again. When I began listening to the more liberal side, I did it for the sole purpose of appearing enlightened and open-minded, until I began to see the zippers in the back of their costumes. From that point forward, I listened to the more liberal arguments to strengthen my arguments against them and their agendas and formulas.

I’ve fantasized about becoming Batman, the Fonz, Walter Payton, Johnny Jefferson and Stephen King, but I wasn’t willing to put in the work to achieve what they’ve achieved. I’ve realized that while they may have some natural gifts that I have never had, they put in a lot of work to get where they are. Somewhere along the line, I began fantasizing about becoming me, and I realized that’s going to take a lot of work.

Interested in reading the non-political, fiction side of Rilaly? Follow the link below:

Rules and Realities of Writing

I wanted to write an article on the world of writing the way I see it.  It’s negative in spots and cynical in others, but I hope this doesn’t deter anyone with the dream of accomplishing all that they want to accomplish in the world of writing.  The Leonardo da Vinci philosophy to answering a question was to ask them.  He would compose hundreds of questions to the answer he was trying to achieve, and he found that by asking himself the questions he arrived at better answers.  The key to the questions is to ask them objectively.  You cannot worry about hurting your feelings.  You cannot worry if these questions change the course of your answer one hundred and eight degrees.  The questions must be asked.

The first question that must be asked is how bad do you really want it?  Do you want to be published, do you want to achieve the completion of a story, and what are you willing to do to achieve it?  Are you the type of person who enjoys calling yourself a writer, are you someone who enjoys having another call you a writer, or are you someone who writes?

The publishing industry, or as I call them the rejection industry, will pound you.  They haven’t been mean to me, and I don’t think they’ll be mean to you, but what you’re trying to sell them just doesn’t sound like something you can sell.  ‘What the hell do you want?’ you will ask them in your head.  “And why are you hitting me?” your keyboard, wall and head will ask in unison as you work your way through the latest Writer’s Digest list of publishers that are looking for you.

Do you have the time?  Most people will tell you either I used to love writing, or I used to be a writer, but I don’t have the time anymore.  Do you remember the excuse T-shirts of the 90’s that would say: “Why I suck at bowling, why I can’t fish, or the reasons I’m bad at golf.”  I would say that one out of four people I run across on a daily basis tell me that they are a writer, used to be a writer, or wish they could be a writer.  If writers could laugh at themselves in the same manner as the golfing and bowling flunkies, the industry could make millions with ‘excuses why I am not a writer’ T-shirts.

When I was a young ‘un trying to find my way through teen trauma, I found music.  I listened to any piece of music I could find from my Mom’s Ray Coniff/Burt Bacharach/Glenn Campbell record collection to my Kiss/Van Halen/Rod Stewart cassette tape collection.  After awhile, music wasn’t cutting it anymore.  I still listened to music as often as I could in a day, but something was missing in my life.  In my twenties, I took a creative writing course in college, and I handed in some stuff that I thought was the greatest material written since Hemingway pulled the trigger.  It was pretty awful stuff, but the writing teacher said I showed some promise in paragraphs two and twelve.  I realized (thought) I had a gift.  I’ve always had a gift for observation and storytelling (lying), but I never saw an avenue for it, until that teacher told me I had some promise.  Ever since that day, I have been pecking away at various keyboards trying to make the dream come alive.

“I am not adept at punctuation and/or grammar in general.”  A caller to a radio show once informed Clive Barker.  She said that she enjoyed writing, but it was the mechanics of writing that prevented her from delving into it whole hog.  “Are you a proficient story teller?” Clive asked her.  “Do you enjoy telling stories, and do you entertain your friends with your tales?”  The woman said yes to all of the above.  “Well, you can learn the mechanics, and I encourage you to do so, but you cannot learn story telling.  The ability to tell a story is, largely, a gift.  Either you have it or you don’t.”

The next important question is: ‘Do you have an idea?’ Another important question is: ‘Is it a good idea.’  It’s not as easy as it seems, and some writers get so bogged down in the arena of idea that they end up not writing anything.  It may be a mistake for some, because they may not be writers, but others should just write.  One of the dumbest questions asked of established writers is: ‘where do your ideas come from?’  Very rarely do you hear a straight forward answer to this question.  I don’t know what the interviewer expects, but the answer is usually vague.  In my opinion, this is because an idea is borne from the activity of writing.  If you find yourself writing for hours on end day after day, you’ll find little ideas gestate into bigger ideas, and bigger ideas turn into large ideas.  To paraphrase Hemingway: “Your mind is like a muscle, and you have to work it out every day if you ever hope to hone it.”  There comes a point where you begin using that muscle so often that a little idea peaks out from beneath the covers and cries for you to hold her for a second.  It’s your job to pet her when she cries and scold her when she acts up.  She’s your baby, and you have to rear her to fruition.  The best way to see her reach adulthood is to be there for her.

I’ve heard people talk about writer’s block.  I don’t believe in writer’s block.  I think people who have writer’s block expect to write Crime and Punishment or War and Peace, and they’re frustrated when their story turns out to be ‘My day at the Supermarket.’   Writers write.  To my mind, if I want to be a writer, I will write anything and everything.  I will write something if it’s great, and I will write something if it sucks, and they do suck.  But, as Charlie Sheen once said, “You have to create a lot of manure to fertilize that one flower.”

When that eventual idea peaks it’s little head out at you, in the midst of writing, it may be important to trim the fat that got you there.   I believe it was Anton Chekov who said that every writer should take the first three pages of their manuscript and chuck them.  He said that it takes a writer about that long to get into a proper flow.  In the first few pages, you are laying the foundation for your eventual story, but it should only be a foundation for you to begin your work.  You shouldn’t burden the reader with this unnecessary fluff that helped you get over the hurdle of a beginning.

Are you Kerouac or Joyce?  These two authors insisted on a form of writing called stream of consciousness writing.  History has treated both of these authors with kindness, but they are the exceptions to the rule.  For the rest of us, a golden rule applies: Your words are not golden.  Delete the dumb words.  Take out the sentences and paragraphs that make no sense, or they bore the reader.  To paraphrase Andre Agassi: ‘Pace is everything’.

If in your quest to completion, you are able to go back and admit to yourself that you are not a man of golden words, then you will find yourself nearing the golden chalice.  If you can delete large chunks of your work, then you may be momentarily defeating the complimentary Golem that has been chasing you thus far.  I can’t delete large chunks.  I put too much work into it to just throw them away, but I have created an Extras file that I dump this material in.   Nothing is worse to a reader than when a narrator leads you to girl falling off the cliff, and then the narrator decides to put in three pages of fluff on his idea of the meaning of life.  Teasing is all right, but do not forget to make the minutiae in the middle interesting.  Remember pace is everything.  If your pace if purposefully plodding, then go with plodding, but remember the risk you’re running.

What is the goal?  If you want to enter the craft of writing to be a star that is chased by paparazzi, then you may want to re-think your plans.  John Irving called writing the loneliest profession of all.  He said the writer is usually locked in a room pounding out ideas with no one to talk to about it.  This is John Irving, one of the few men that could be called a literary rock star to my mind, and he said this a couple years ago.  He said this about eight to nine books into his profession.  Forget the paparazzi, forget even being noticed on the streets, and you can probably forget about readings that are specifically directed to you and your book(s).  This happens to a very few in the profession.  If you are one of the lucky ones, in this regard, I dare say that it won’t be because you were driven to stardom.  I think the Irvings and the Koontzs and the Kings were driven by one thing early on: the desire to tell a great story.

I think the desire to be a best seller is also not a good reason to get into the profession.  I think that’s a tad bit lofty.  I think that’s too far in the future.  That’s something that you can’t control.  Plus, this mentality may lead you to change chapter two and four, because you don’t think the people will like it.  You have to trust your judgment and entertain yourself.  If you’re not entertaining yourself, chances are no one else will be entertained either.

On that note, another question should be asked: ‘Do you have a specific take on life?’   A grade school teacher once informed me that an opinion piece I wrote was: “Too mealy mouthed.”  I told her I had no idea what that meant.  She said: “If you’re going to be wrong, be wrong with conviction.”  In writing a novel, one cannot put their finger to the wind on every plot variable, every twist, every line and piece of punctuation.  The writer needs to take charge of their novel and let their experiences dictate that which they enter into it.  How many people could’ve written Old Man and the Sea?  How many people could’ve written it the way it was written?  Hemingway’s experiences entered into it.  You are who you are based on your experiences.  You shouldn’t be afraid to let this enter into your fiction.  Only you can write this particular novel.

As a counter point to that point, can you distance yourself in the creation of a character?  Our family and friends all believe that they live the most fascinating lives on the planet.  How many times do they tell us that we should write a book about them?  In truth, their lives may not even be fascinating to us, but your life is probably not fascinating to us either.  This is where the stew comes into place.  Your job as a writer is to take your experiences and combine them with fascinating stories.  Does this mean that you embellish on your life?  Well, some of the best writers used to be some of the best liars in life.  They just learned to channel their embellishments to something productive.  Does this mean that your character has to do exactly what you would do in a given situation?  Yes and no.  You don’t want to stray too far from the core of who you are, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have your character do something that fascinates you.  Larry David, of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm fame, states that the show Curb Your Enthusiasm is based upon experiences that have occurred in his life, except that Larry has the character on the show say things that he wishes he had said in that particular situation in his life.  In other words, you should write characters that occasionally do the things that tick you off the most.  You should have your characters do things that are immoral and spiteful.  At times, you should even have your main character do such things.  Some people avoid having their characters do stupid things.  Most men fear having female characters do stupid things, because females get offended easily when men stereotype them a certain way, but women do stupid things everyone does.  Most authors stridently avoid having their characters do stupid things, because these are images we have of heroes in one way or another.  If male characters have men do stupid things, it’s usually to promote the intelligence of the female counterpart, or it’s done to produce an effect that the character will eventually avenge.  I say that you should allow your characters to do stupid things because it’s funny, it adds definition, and it allows the reader to better identify with the character.

There are definitely guidelines, and there is a right way to do things and a wrong way of doing things, but the name of the game of fiction is that there are no rules.  Do what you do.  Let your freak flag fly.  Non-writers get bogged down in the detail.  They buy all the magazines on the best way to lead to conflict, the best way to get out of that conflict, the best way to provide character to your character, the best way to start, and the ten best ways to conclude a best-selling novel.  Take a look at some of the names of the people who have written these pieces, they know as little about writing a best-seller as you do, but more importantly they don’t know how to write your novel.  Some of the writers do have best-sellers on their resumes, but do they have a novel similar to yours?  Do they have the novel that you wish you would’ve written?  If that’s the case, follow their template.  I don’t know how far it will get you, but if you have confidence in the fact that they can lead you to the Promised Land better than your own intuition, then by all means fork over your seven dollars.  My point is this is your game.  This is going to be your book, and wouldn’t you rather succeed on your own?  I’m not saying that their advice is without merit, but don’t let yourself get bogged down in the detail.

The final question that must be asked is: ‘Should you just give up?’  This may seem antithetical to everything I’ve just written, but it is a vital component to writing fiction.  It involves the story that is going nowhere.  I don’t know how many stories you have going at once, or if you only have one, but there comes a crossroads in every story’s life.  You were inspired up until you reached point F of the process.  Now you’re stuck.  You can’t think of what to do at this point.  The non-writer will give up the craft entirely at this point, and maybe he should.  Maybe it’s too hard for him, or maybe he just wasn’t meant to be a writer in the first place.  It’s a very important crossroads for you.  If you have the temerity to push ahead, there are a few things that I’ve done to keep ‘it’ all shiny and honed.  First, you can just force your character through the keyhole, and see what happens.  This has never worked for me.  It has left me more muddled than I was when I hit the crossroads in the first place.  You can go back and edit what you’ve already done.  Editing helps you retrace the steps that led you to the crossroads, and it can help you remember all the characteristics of your story that led you to the crossroads.  On a number of occasions, I’ve added a tweak here, deleted an adjustment there, or scrapped the story entirely.  Again, it’s important when to know when to cut your losses.  Are you going to give up writing altogether, or is it just this particular story that isn’t going the places that you hoped it would?  It’s decision time for you and your story and your career.  The other thing you can do, if you’ve decided to keep writing, is paint fruit and flowers.  It used to drive me nuts when I would go through the catalogues of the famous painters and see all these beautiful works of art broken up by paintings of fruit and flowers.  It’s my contention that these artists couldn’t think of anything to paint for stretches of time, so they painted fruit and flowers.  They did this, I believe, to keep their skills fresh for a time when inspiration struck them.  You need to find your fruit and flowers.  Is it other meaningless stories, political blogs, blogging in general, or book and album reviews?  What is it you might enjoy writing about while that story remains at a crossroads?  Whatever it is, write it and keep the muscle honed.