Lennon, Leonardo, and the Responsibility of Genius

Life would be less without art. Art affords us the emotional vocabulary to comprehend pain and beauty and sin and redemption, all the while exploring meaning. Artists stand outside the cauldron of our stress-inducing schedules of jobs and mundane responsibilities and so enjoy the time and perspective to observe, ponder, and create. Through their songs, paintings, sculpture, dance, architecture, and more, they light the candles that flicker in the dark, quiet places where we ask questions often admitted to no one, not even ourselves. If all this is true, then does the artist have a responsibility to create art? Let us consider two artists who didn’t think so.

lennon

John Lennon was only 29-years-old when the Beatles broke up. He went on to create a number of fun sketches, brought attention to the cause of peace, and recorded albums but then, when his wife became pregnant, he quit it all. After the birth of their son, he just stayed home. Lennon wrote, “I have never subscribed to the view that artists owe a debt to the public any more than youth owes its life to king and country.”

Lennon wrote of the artist Gauguin who left his wife and beloved daughter behind in Paris to escape to Tahiti where he worked on what he hoped would be his masterpiece. He slaved away for years and died without seeing his daughter again. Later, the painting dedicated to her was lost in a fire. Lennon wondered if Gauguin’s time would have been better spent with the daughter he professed to love so profusely. He wrote that, for him, Gauguin’s lesson was clear: “I’ve already lost one family to produce what? Sgt Pepper? I am blessed with a second chance…If I never produce anything more for public consumption than silence, so be it.”

Lennon’s example and point would have been understood by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Leonardo was a genius. He was a polymath who considered painting the least of his talents. His voluminous notebooks betray the astounding range of his interests. He pondered and explored things such as why the sky is blue, how woodpeckers avoid concussions, and how eddies swirl in streams. He designed innovative buildings, invented flying machines, developed elaborate theatrical productions, and drew plans for advanced weaponry and fortifications. He conducted autopsies to determine how the heart worked, how movement was controlled by muscles and tendons, and detailed the intricacies of the spine and central nervous system.

Many of his inventions and discoveries were centuries ahead of his time. His precise descriptions of heart function, for instance, would only be determined to have been accurate in 2014 when technology became adequately advanced to confirm his findings. Think about that. It took until 2014 to determine that he had been right in 1509.

Leonardo notebook

The most fascinating thing about all of the work that sprang from his insatiable curiosity and stubborn refusal to silo art, technology, and science is that he published none of it. Nearly all stayed in his notebooks, accompanied by exquisitely detailed drawings and explained in his quirky left-handed mirror image writing. Some of his inventions and suggestions were entertained by popes, kings, and generals but sabotaged by their being far beyond the technology of the day.

Leonardo didn’t care. His paintings won him patrons and all the money he needed to live. His explorations afforded him all inspiration he needed to make living worthwhile. He cared not one wit about sharing with the world that to which he dedicated his life to examining and inventing. He left many paintings incomplete and even failed to start many more for which he was commissioned. His most famous work, the portrait of the 24-year-old wife of a local silk merchant, the enchanting Lisa del Giocondo, was found in his studio after his death. He had worked on it, off and on, for sixteen years and neither delivered it nor was paid for it.

Are artists like Lennon and Leonardo self-indulgent ingrates because they selfishly kept from the world that which it was owed? Perhaps the question is whether those with exceptional talents owe it to the world to share the products of those talents. Would we have been just fine if Sinatra never sang, Jobs never tinkered, Einstein never wondered, and Cohen never rhymed? Perhaps. But would our world be poorer and our lives somewhat shallower without Imagine and Mona Lisa’s smile? Who owes what to whom? What do we owe, whatever our talents, to the world?

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What I’ve Learned About Being an Author

My first book was published a number of years ago and I am now working on what will be my eighth. I’ve seen a lot of changes in the publishing industry over that time but the most essential element remains the same as it’s been since Gutenberg invented the printing press. An author sits alone with the seed of an idea and a reader sits alone enjoying the fruit of that idea. It’s only the middle bit between those solitary acts that has changed. Here’s what I have learned.

  1. Write

If you want to write, then go ahead. It’s like Yoda said, “No try, do. Do or don’t do. No try.” There are many ways to get started and the easiest is to set up a free WordPress webpage and begin blogging. Write about what you know. Develop a theme. Forget how many people click to read it, that’s not what it’s about.

You are writing not as a sprinter on race day but a marathoner in training. Build writing muscles and skills by using them. Read authors you admire. Then read those you don’t. Treat them as teachers. Then write more. Someone who is not writing is not a writer. They are someone who either has written or someone with a dream but no plan.

All I've Learned About Being an Author

(Iconix Brand Group Inc)

  1. Printing and Self-Publishing

Printing is often all many people want. For example, if you want to write a history of your family that no one but your family will probably read then find yourself a printer. They will help design, and then print and bind as many copies as you wish of whatever you give them. Be sure you have at least five people proof-read your work or even hire a professional editor to save yourself the embarrassment of errors that will live longer than you.

Self-publishing is becoming increasingly prevalent. It’s tough as you must essentially become your own publishing company. It demands a lot of work which means hours away from your writing. However, if willing and able to take the risk and do the work, the reward could be your book appearing on Amazon and other online sites and generating sales.

  1. Publishing Houses

Publishing houses understand that they are making art and making money but if they don’t do both then they can’t do either. Accept that. Many small houses will accept unsolicited manuscripts – over the transom, as the saying goes. Larger houses, and there are fewer of them as they have been shuttering or swallowing each other, will only accept manuscripts from agents. Agents and houses will not be interested in a whole book, just a proposal.

  1. Proposal

If you want to write a book, then don’t write a book. That is, develop your idea for a book into a proposal for a book. It is a two-page sales pitch. Be succinct in explaining why anyone would want to read your book and why a publisher will make money by publishing it. A novel’s proposal is more straight forward but a non-fiction proposal’s subtitles could be: Elevator Pitch, Argument, Market, Author, Table of Contents. If you are a first-time author you will probably also need a sample chapter. Have a couple of people read and edit your proposal. Be sure it is not someone who loves you or will not be harshly critical for you want unburnished opinions now, not later. Then find yourself an agent.

  1. Get an Agent

Scan the web and you will find lots of agents. Or, go to a bookstore, if you can still find one, and look at the acknowledgement pages of books like yours and see which agents are being thanked. You only want to approach an agent who specializes in your kind of book. An agent is the liaison between you and the publisher. If your proposal is any good, an agent may take you on as a client. A contract will be signed in which the agent will get around 15% of everything you make.

She will then be like your best friend, supporting you or kicking your backside depending on which you need most at the moment. She will help to hone your proposal and make it better than you thought it could be. She will then approach publishers attempting to have them take it on. She will negotiate an advance on royalties and contract with them. Meanwhile, you concentrate on your writing.

  1. The Publishing Contract

Famous people sell a lot of books and so they get huge advances that can sometimes be in the millions of dollars. First-time authors, however, can expect between $5,000 and $20,000. You should not get too excited, though, because the money is there to pay for expenses incurred while writing the book and it is later deducted from royalties earned from sales. Most authors will earn from 8% to 12% of the book’s sale price. The contract will establish when the finished draft manuscript must be submitted. Now you must actually write the thing.

  1. Writing

There is always time. I am up and writing each day at 5:00 am. The sane world is still asleep so there are no emails or calls, just me, tea, and the muse. Even if the muse doesn’t show up some mornings, I am there doing what feels like a punch-the-clock effort but at least I’m there. I run and take long walks without music and it is there the real writing takes place. When in my office, I am usually just typing what I have already written in my head. The best secret as to how to get words on a page is to get your ass in a chair.

  1. Editing

Kurt Vonnegut once told students that anyone can write. To be a writer, though, is to write something then rewrite it, and then rewrite it, and then re-write it again. Then, when it is absolutely perfect, re-write it three more times. You should do this before submitting the manuscript. When you do, you will be assigned an editor. This is your other best friend or perhaps like your best high school teacher. He will take your manuscript and mark it up noting where the structure should be improved or grammar fixed. You will go back and forth a number of times until finally, you are on the phone or in an office going through the entire manuscript one sentence at a time. It will then be sent to a proofreader who will, hopefully, find all the little mistakes left for you to fix.

  1. The Box

It’s a glorious feeling. A box will arrive at your front door and inside are the dozen or so books that your publisher sends you for free. There it is. After two or three years of solitary work and then months of editing it is finally a tangible thing. The verb has become a noun as your writing is a book.

  1. Marketing

Your publisher will assign a publicist. She will do all she can to sell you and the book. You may be interviewed on radio or TV, do speeches, or appear at literary festivals. You must be ready to explain your book in twenty seconds, or ten minutes, or an hour. You must never be ashamed by shameless promotion. You are no longer in the business of writing. You are now in sales. This will involve your engagement in social media for you must take on a lot of the marketing work yourself.

You will need to grow the hide of a rhinoceros because there will be those who will not like your book. You may get trashed in a review. You may have no one show up for an event. Your book may be ignored altogether. All you can do is your best and keep smiling.

  1. Dividing Your Brain and Time

Usually, several months or even a year may go by between your having submitted the final draft manuscript and the publication date. While editing that one, you will be writing your next one, beginning with the idea and proposal. You will then be in the odd position of talking about your first book while all your brain really wants to focus on is your next one because your first one, to you, is already two or more years old. It’s an interesting dance.

  1. Sales

About five to ten years ago, it was predicted that book sales would plummet. They did not. There are actually more people buying and reading books today than ever before. Even the sales of physical books have become relatively stable year to year. Even if physical and e-book sales are combined, the sales of nearly all books are relatively low. There are only a few Harry Potter like hits each year. They allow publishing houses to publish all the others. One can have a Canadian best seller at 6,000 – 8,000 copies. That is why nearly all writers have other jobs. Most teach or are journalists but there are a lot of writing waiters.

Like in the music business, there are a lot of people doing it but only a few making a good living. That said, if all you are interested in is the money then forget it. You probably won’t make much and you will probably not be much good because you are in it for entirely the wrong reason.

And so….

Writers understand and live for the warmth of a well-written sentence and cogently constructed argument. Margaret Atwood once observed that you know you are a writer when you are writing in July about a winter scene and then after an hour lost in creative thought you look out the window and wonder what happened to all the snow. Good luck. I’m pulling for you.

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The Guitar That Reminds Us Who We Are

Sometimes the craziest of ideas can be terrifically inspiring. This one involves a guitar and a nation.

It was 1995 and Canada was coming apart at the seams. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had decided that because Quebec had not signed the constitution when it was finally brought home from Britain in 1981, that he would seduce the signature by transferring a host of federal powers to it and the other provinces. The provinces loved it, of course. Then the whole package, called the Charlottetown Accord, went to the people in a national referendum. That’s when the arguments began. Revolutions had been fought about such things. In the United States, over 700,000 people were butchered in their Civil War deciding whether dominant power should rest with the federal or state governments. But Canadians are different. We reached not for guns but gavels. We debated in public meetings. We argued at kitchen tables, and over backyard fences. It got ugly.

Jowi Taylor reacted differently. The CBC writer and radio host met with luthier George Ritzsanyi and suggested that they make a guitar. They would call it Voyageur. Ritzsany was a first-generation Hungarian immigrant who had worked as an auto worker but had become renowned among guitar lovers for his unique and fine work. But this would not be just any guitar.

Taylor would assemble this guitar from fragments of the nation to which it would be dedicated. David Suzuki, the well-known environmentalist and TV host, was instrumental in pointing Taylor to the Golden Spruce. It was the rare, 300-year-old albino tree on Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) that was sacred to the Haida people. It became a symbol of resistance to broken treaties and land rights encroachments when, in the middle of the night, an angry logging scout chainsawed the sacred tree to the ground. Suzuki introduced Taylor to Haida elders and, after great debate, they agreed that the guitar would be an honoured place for part of the felled tree to live on. Voyageur would be made from a piece of the sacred Golden Spruce.

The tree was an important and inspiring first step but Taylor needed more items to embed in the guitar and money to support their collection. He called his project The Six String Nation. He set up a website and wrote emails and snail mails and made countless phone calls. He traveled. He begged for funding and was disappointed more often than pleased. The Globe and Mail published a front page story about the project but even that brought frustratingly little funding. The CBC offered to make a film but that fell apart.

But Canadians came through. Individual sponsors stepped up and big and small donations were made. Many people logged on and bought guitar straps to help finance the project. (Full disclosure, one of them was me. The black strap holds my Gretsch at every gig I play.)

Taylor’s persistence began paying dividends and more precious objects were collected. There was a piece from Rocket Richard’s Stanley Cup ring, a fragment from Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick and another Paul Henderson’s stick. There was an antler from a moose and another from a mastodon. There was a piece of steel rail from a CPR track, one from Sir John A. Macdonald’s sideboard, and a chunk of copper from the roof of the parliamentary library, Canada’s most beautiful room. There was a chunk of a seat from Massey Hall and another from the old Montreal Forum. There was a piece of Nancy Green’s ski and one from Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle.

Finally, on June 14, 2006, the fragments had been collected and incorporated and the guitar was done. It was beautiful. It played beautifully. A week later it was in Ottawa where preparations were being made for the Canada Day celebration. Renowned bluesman Colin James strummed it for gathered reporters and said it was a fine guitar that he was proud to play. Colin Linden played it at a press event the next day. Then, on the big stage, on July 1, the guitar’s story was told and the enormous crowd thundered its approval with applause that echoed off parliament’s centre block. Stephen Fearing took Voyageur in hand and kicked off his set with the Longest Road. It had indeed been a long road but it was not over.

The Guitar and the Nation

Jowi Taylor and Voyageur (Photo: Doug Nicholson)

The guitar toured the country. Professionals and amateurs held it and played it. As guitarists know, playing a guitar is an intimate act. It is the only instrument the player cradles when playing like a child, like a lover. And Canadians loved the guitar.

Canadians are a nation by choice. We are a nation not of blood but of laws. We build bridges not walls and we extend our hands to those in need whether suffering the aftermath of World War Two, or the Vietnam War, or the Syrian War. We all know, and most of us recall, that we are nearly all from away and at one point we were the aliens on the boats, risking all to seek a better life and contribute to nation worthy of our dreams. Canada, after all, is less an entity than a conversation. Jowi Taylor’s Voyageur guitar has become an important part of that conversation by inviting us to consider the fragments within it that are fragments of ourselves.

Please visit http://www.sixstringnation.com/ where you can scan the guitar and see all the amazing fragments  embedded it in. Please consider sending this column to others.

Most Important Rock Groups Ever

Rock is art. Rock songs toy with time. Decades after first hearing it, a song will find its way to your radio and instantly transport you to a place and people. They are three-minute symphonies. They are novels with plot, theme, and character. Because rock songs matter, the groups that create them matter and so let us ponder our most important groups.

Most Important Rock Groups EverPhoto: www.picsfair.com

  1. Crickets and the Beatles

Sex spawned Rock ‘n’ Roll. Even the name was an African-American slang for sex. The early songs were blatantly sexual. Consider Good Rockin’ Tonight, Great Balls of Fire, and anything by Little Richard including his transvestite tale in Long Tall Sally. The Crickets and then the Beatles turned rock from sex to fun. The Crickets sang Oh Boy at the thought of merely seeing a girl and the Beatles just wanted to hold her hand.

More important was that they killed the old music industry. For decades, songwriters punched the clock each morning in small offices on Nashville’s Music Row and New York’s Brill building. They wrote the songs that A & R men pitched. The Crickets and Beatles proclaimed that from that point on, groups would write their own material.

  1. The Byrds and the Band

The Byrds married the rhythms and harmonies of the Beatles with the lyrical maturity of Bob Dylan. Many of their early songs were Dylan covers. Kids were surprised to learn that with Turn! Turn! Turn! they were dancing to the Bible’s Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. They certainly knew that Eight Miles High was about drugs.

Like the Byrds, the Band taught listeners that rock songs could move beyond girl-boy angst. They focussed on deeper matters. With The Weight, they wrote of the American Civil War’s pain and the century-long yearning for redemption. With Cripple Creek and many others, they sang of the joy in anti-establishment and anti-consumerist attitudes and behaviours.

  1. The Monkees and the Eagles

That’s right, the Monkees. Of course they were a made up band but they’re on this list because of Mike Nesmith. To quell his protests, he was allowed to produce two of his compositions for the first Monkees album. Papa Jean’s Blues and Sweet Young Thing were rock but also country. Unlike today’s country, which Tom Petty has said is bad pop with a fiddle, Nesmith’s songs were outlaw country before Waylon and Willie coined the phrase. Each Monkees album contained Nesmith country-rock songs and lots of kids were hearing the new genre because, in 1967, the Monkees outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Before winning his casting call, Nesmith had been an MC at an L. A. club where he sang and introduced local talent. Among them was Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys. Their first hit was a Nesmith country-rock song: Different Drum. After touring with Ronstadt, her band left and renamed itself the Eagles. They took country-rock to new levels. Marvel at their harmonies and stellar musicianship as you hear country and rock fusing seamlessly in Already Gone, Take It Easy, and Heartache Tonight. A string of hits and sold-out concerts taught folks that the line between rock and country is as illusory as that between the beer and wine of Saturday night and Sunday morning.

  1. The Beatles and the Beach Boys

After enjoying a string of hits, Beach Boys muse Brian Wilson surrendered the road for the studio. Although deaf in one ear from a beating his father inflicted in childhood, he meticulously coached LA’s Wrecking Crew through layers of overdubs until the music on the tape matched the vision in his head. The quirky arrangements and odd instruments, such as the theremin, were like no one had ever imagined. The result was God Only Knows, Good Vibrations, Wouldn’t It Be Nice and the album Pet Sounds.

I know the Beatles are on this list twice. So what, they earned it. When Paul McCartney heard Pet Sounds he drove to Lennon’s house and they accepted the challenge. The Beatles and their genius producer George Martin locked themselves in Abbey Road for months until their masterpiece was complete – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. There wasn’t a single single. That was the point.

FM radio was invented to allow rock music to graduate from commercial AM formats where songs were almost incidental to ads and DJ patter, to a place where albums could be played in their entirety. The Beach Boys and Beatles and their two albums raised rock music from disposable to art.

  1. Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin

Rock ‘n’ Roll was born in the delta blues of the American south and electric blues of Chicago. A teenaged Keith Richard was at a train station when he noticed a skinny kid with an armful of American blues records. Intrigued, he introduced himself to Mick Jagger. The group they created was named after a blues song and dedicated to bringing American blues to British and then back to American kids. When in America, they insisted on meeting not movie stars but Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and their blues idols. Listen to Honky Tonk Woman or any number of others and try not to hear the blues.

Led Zepplin was more outrageous in their clothes, behaviour, attitude, and concerts than any group before and their music more ragged, innovative, and loud. All of that distracted from the fact that they were playing little more than operatic variations of the blues. Listen to Muddy Water’s Hoochie Coochie Man then consider the direct line to Whole Lot of Love. As Elvis had, the Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin reminded listeners of rock’s black roots.

  1. The Heartbreakers and the Clash

Rock survived the early ‘60s folk music scare but was nearly defeated by ‘70s disco. It was music untouched by human hands that appealed to neither head nor heart but rather the spinal chord. Some groups manned the cultural barricades and burned the white flag. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played music that reminded listeners of the best of the ‘60s but brought a power either not imagined or too long forgotten. Refugee, American Girl and many others pulsed with catchy hooks but just beneath the surface lurked desperate rage.

The Clash employed classic ‘60s models in musicians and song structures. Their songs bespoke the simple beauty wrought from three chords and the truth. They were based on the notion, as Heartbreaker guitarist Mike Campbell once said: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” Their lyrics decried the phoniness of celebrity culture and the pain of Thatcherism. The Heartbreakers and the Clash saved rock music from disco’s circling of the cultural sink and reminded people of rock’s potency and potential.

  1. Pearl Jam and Nirvana

Every decade asks rock music to save itself from the industry of which it’s a part. Grunge did the deed in the ‘90s. Pearl Jam’s music harkened back to classic rock writing structures but it was rougher and more adventurous. Their lyrics were decidedly dark in addressing suicide, sexual abuse, and depression. They sacrificed untold millions to fight Ticketmaster and its greedy, gouging fees. It played stadiums and forced advertising banners to be covered and even tape to be placed over the beer logos on concession workers’ shirts.

Due to the suicide of its leader and lead singer, Nirvana recorded only three albums but that was enough to contribute to the move toward songs that jumped from one rhythm to another, from quiet, gentle sections to screaming raves, and yet stuck to the verse-chorus-bridge structure. Their unplugged concert proved that while bad songs can make fun records, only quality songs stand with credibility when stripped to acoustic instrumentation. Talent always trumps show.

Picasso once took a child’s sparkler and dashed a swirl that instantly vanished. A photographer caught it. There, slashing the darkness, was art. Most rock music is equally fleeting. Some groups, though, are like Picasso. Their concerts are the artist’s sparklers creating moments immediately gone. Recordings, though, are canvasses. They speak to artistic intention, society’s gaps, and a listener’s yearnings. Songs by any of the groups on the list are exactly the same as the day they were recorded but our world has changed, we have changed, and so the songs have changed with our evolving perception of their meaning. That we can visit as old friends is the beauty of art, of all art, but perhaps especially music.

Please consider sharing this with others on Facebook or elsewhere and leaving a comment as to groups I missed and which should not have made this list. You might also be a brute for punishment and check my previous columns where, perhaps as foolishly as above, I tackled:

6 Singers Who Matter Most https://johnboyko.com/2016/01/04/popular-important-6-singers-that-matter-most/

Most Important Bands of All Time https://johnboyko.com/2016/01/18/most-important-bands-of-all-time/

Top Concerts of the Last 5 Decades https://johnboyko.com/tag/concert/