In some recent researching for my podcast, I went on a tangent into punk rock for an hour or two. It was fun when I was introduced to it in my teens (I never listened to rock music as a kid, and in some ways I’m still hungrily trying to recapture those lost listening years), and it’s still appealing to me now.
There were memories and discoveries aplenty from ThoughtCo’s list of most influential albums. But that one is all over the place in time, and a few of my personal favorites were missing—specifically, Bad Religion and X—so there’s also the L.A. Weekly’s excellent top 20 West-Coast-centric albums. (Although, how you gonna have a top 20 without Fear: The Record?)
What’s the big deal? Much of the punk aesthetic is a reaction to the pretentious studio practices of the 70s, as I mentioned yesterday, and the idea that anyone can—nay, should—make rock ‘n’ roll. And don’t get me wrong, I love Alan Parsons, Earth, Wind & Fire, Fleetwood Mac, and Steely Dan, too. There’s something deeply inspiring, though, about three or four musicians just quickly tearing it up with no flash, letting the power of the songs speak for themselves. So it is with visual art. Jackson Pollock creating something new using house paint on a plain, unstretched canvas on the floor. Basquiat doing the same with cheap oilsticks and spray paint over fencing.
Sometimes you just want to make things, and you don’t have time to be careful or make it polished and elaborate. Simple is compelling and evocative, too.
A fair bit of the internet is being charmed by this video of two girls who are meeting for the first time in person. It’s true that real friendships are forged and nurtured on the ‘net (as the kids no longer say), and that some connections wouldn’t be possible at all without it. But the joyous intensity of emotion on these girls’ faces as they touch for the first time is a level above where they were just minutes before they saw each other.
We need each other, but we need each others’ physical presence, too. The idea so many of us had of staying home and reaching out to the world from safety and comfort isn’t what we need. It’s nice to do that and have interactions across world-spanning distances. But standing across from you and your body next to me is deeply and essentially part of what makes us human. I’m moved to tears and I’ve had not a single previous moment with either person above, ever. It’s deep and it’s touching. “Are you real?” is going to stick with me for some time.
I’m a fan of hers, but I didn’t think I’d want to listen to more than a snippet of Juliana Hatfield’s Olivia Newton-John covers album. But I did! It’s a lot of fun, and good to hear these songs interpreted by a musician I’ve long admired and respected.
The smallest unit of a body of work in art is the show—a group of paintings often bound by a theme or similar style and execution. For film, it’s, well, a film. For music, it’s long been an album.
We sometimes get caught in the idea of an artist changing direction, thinking it’s the new path for them. And that’s as may be, but it isn’t necessarily a permanent change for someone. Sometimes, it’s just a set of ideas they want to explore for a while.
People like to put you in a box. “This is the bold new direction for artist Z!” But the true box might be a walled-off garden of delights you’ve put together this one time. You’re always free to look back to your past, or completely change again for the next thing you do.
Nothing exemplifies this for me more than Queen’s 1982 album Hot Space. Although hated by many fans and critics, who didn’t think the band who exclaimed “We Will Rock You” had any business incorporating disco and r&b influences into its music.
But Freddie Mercury, particularly, forged ahead, and the band made just that album. It was less important how successful they were than that they tried something different. And it was less important still that they indulged their whims than that they recognized it was a discrete time and body of work they were under no obligation to repeat or take direction from for the next thing.
Freddie said, during a show at Milton Keynes,
“That doesn’t mean we’ve lost our rock & roll feel, okay? I mean it’s only a bloody record! People get so excited about these things. We just want to try out a few new sounds.”
Follow your heart and mind. It doesn’t matter a damn what comes next. Do the thing you feel now.
I was always a fan of the Friday 5 meme, so here’s a past-blast redux, why not.
1) Austin Kleon gave a wonderful talk at the Bond conference last week, on maintaining your creative momentum and such.
2) Since the beginning of hockey season, I’ve been trying to be less a fan of any particular team and enjoy the game and the players I admire more. Still, there’s beauty in the way fandom wears its collective heart on its sleeve, and if you’re outside it you don’t feel the same impact. And since my former fanning was done in support of the Vancouver Canucks, I couldn’t help but be caught up in the last home game the fabled Sedin twins will ever play. Not only was it touching to see such affection pouring from the fans and other players (on both teams), it was also a thrilling nail-biter of a finish in overtime. It embodied the best of what pro sports can offer.
The common refrain I hear in response to the question, “what kind of music do you listen to?” is “oh, everything.” I think that may be us not wanting to be put in a box. “Mostly stuff I liked when I was in my late teens and early twenties” is more accurate, in my experience, but that’s not to denigrate people who like the things they like.
While I wish everybody lusted for new and more music the way I do, there’s a danger as well. Or, to not be so dramatic, a downside. Especially these days, music is a cornucopia of bands and releases. There’s so much more to listen to than one person could possibly consume, even once, and it’s very easy to get into a habit of racing through playlists and album streams without really paying attention to them, just having stuff on in order to get through the ever-growing lists. It feels like I’m cheapening music, sometimes, indulging my inborn collector lust, the part of humanity’s acquisition drive that gamification and social media feeds trigger and reward so shrewdly.
But deep listening to the same piece has the opposite effect. In a way, it’s a form of singletasking. The tenth or twelfth time through Ethan Gruska’s wonderful Slowmotionary, for example, or the hundredth time through Hounds of Love and lo and behold, I hear something I’ve never heard on the album before. In a way, it’s new again, I’m startled out of my assumptions. It can happen with art, too. Spend several sessions over a few weeks going back to a museum and just looking at one painting. A Rothko, or a Klee, or a Walker, or a Gueorguieva. Things are revealed to you, colors you didn’t notice, symbols overlooked, a compositional element that ties one side to the other, even references to other works.
Deep dives, if we consciously make them, are keys to insight.
Surfing used to be my church. I went more often than once a week, but that’s nothing unusual to many. Muslims would rightly say, “… yeah? And?” But for a non-religious person, I still enjoy and get tangible benefits of viewing some parts of my life as sacred. More often these days, they’re moments, not necessarily entities or institutions.
Today was one of them. I’d had Mark Hollis’s sole solo album (eponymous, 1998) in my collection from about 2004. I was—am—a big fan of Talk Talk, having rediscovered them after I lost track for several years after they released The Colour of Spring. Theirs was one of the most rapid and far-reaching evolutions in all of popular music, going from a synth pop dance band through post rock over the course of five albums. They didn’t do it as fast as The Beatles, but they went much further, stylistically. Mark Hollis really was the driving creative force behind the music, and I wanted the final chapter in his oeuvre to be special. From what I’d read, the album was relatively quiet, so I wanted to experience it alone in a room on a quiet day. As quiet as one could get in the city, of course.
The problem was, I was trying to create a perfect moment, and I don’t think they can be manufactured. What I needed to happen was a sacred moment. An amazing experience can happen more easily with that intention and setting, but you don’t need perfection to experience the sublime. But I made sure I’d be alone for a while, opened the blinds to the sunset, and started the album.
It wasn’t a perfect moment. But it was profound. I’d been putting off a really nice experience so I could try to make it perfect, but really, I’m not sure that’s good for me. For us. It was certainly unfair to put the expectation on the artist to have made the perfect thing, even if that turned out to be true.
We need more of this sacred time, I think. I unreservedly recommend you take 45 minutes, or an hour if it’s long, to just listen to a single album you’ve never heard before in a devotional way—doing nothing else except perhaps look out at the trees and skies nearby.
One of the things you have to discuss in any conversation about Prince is his staggering capacity to create music. He seemingly never stopped. There’s up to 100 albums’ worth of music he left behind, in addition to the 39 studio albums—and smaller projects—he actually released. And he was really, really good.
For me, it’s an unbroken string of brilliance from Dirty Mind all the way through the Love Symbol Album. And even the worst Prince record is pretty good.
What can you do in the face of such awe-inspiring making? Some people say they feel like giving up, confronted with any such prolific master. But I hope we’re inspired. It does help to be a genius, that’s for sure. But the faucet is always there, even if the pipes are not as big for most of us.
Listen to some Prince and make some things of your own.
I watched a documentary about the rise, fall, and rebirth of analog modular synthesizer technology called I Dream of Wires.
I was amused to think that modular synthesis is what many artists do as part of their work. We take bits of ideas and parts of a whole and put them together in new ways, moving plugs and dialing certain elements up and down.
We make and remix concepts and create new things in the world.
No, not the Michael Penn song—although that still holds up, as does the album it’s from1—but rather I’m thinking back on this flood of prescriptive, advices, maybe some platitudes? I’m not sure if this can go on forever. Maybe? If academia is to be taken at face value, perhaps there’s always something more to say about art and how it’s made.
I’m thinking ahead to 2018, what I want to accomplish, and, to my own chagrin, no small amount of fretting over what seems an ever-diminishing supply of time to do, well, anything.
I do find it interesting that you could always make this argument at any point in your life. It seems impossibly short when we look at it in the context of history.
I suppose the platitude here is to note that the time we have left is the time we have left. A tautology to mean it’s just as valid to consider there’s time enough to do some things, and that’s all anyone ever has. A pile slightly bigger for Stephen King doesn’t mean our own small pile is any more (or less!) pointless in the grand scheme of a vast universe.
We make sense of existence through our art, and thus meaning, and most of us find that more fulfilling and worthwhile than not making it.
If this all seems like the climax of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy original radio series—and its adapted scene in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe—with the eternally skeptical Ruler of the Universe, doubting not only his own existence but that of everyone else and their actions, I feel you. Optimism comes and goes, like pessimism, and motivation, and indolence.
We merely know it pleases us to make these things, and if it does, we should keep making our efforts. And do more tomorrow.