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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How to Steal Power from the Dark Side of the Moon

Only 15 human beings, American astronauts all, have ever seen the dark side of the moon. For the rest of us, we see only the moon’s bright face as reflected by the sun’s light but the dark side is hidden; its fascination is in its mystery. It’s the same with celebrity icons. We are the sun, throwing forth our needs and dreams and marveling in all that is reflected back as talent, charisma, and inspiration. But what of the dark side? When mysteries are revealed, does brightness become garish and accomplishments tainted?

Consider John Lennon. He is the cultural icon who, as a member of the Beatles, wrote alone or with Paul McCartney the sound track of a generation that sincerely believed love could conquer all. As a solo artist, he wrote of peace with songs such as Imagine, and Give Peace a Chance. And yet, he was candid in admitting that as a young man he was engaged in numerous fights and physically assaulted women, including his first wife, Cynthia. He was an absentee father who all but ignored his son, Julian. His remarks to friends often crossed the line between witty and cruel. In an interview near the end of his life, he said that violent people are often those who most eagerly seek love and peace.

Do Lennon’s character flaws mean that we should dismiss his artistry and social activism? Can we appreciate the genius of his songs and respect his personal growth while knowing the dark side or can we never again really enjoy All You Need Is Love?

Martin Luther King was only 26 years old when he became the pastor of a Montgomery church. Within months he was the leader of a bus boycott that riveted the world in its brilliant use of non-violence to bring attention and change to the racial segregation that was unjust, illegal, and in violation of the ideals for which his country stood. King’s inspiring words and action led countless courageous people to risk physical beatings and arrest to stand for what was right in terms of racial equality, social justice, and the end of the war in Vietnam. But it was discovered that he had plagiarized his Ph.D. thesis. FBI wiretaps indicated that he associated with communists and that he regularly cheated on his wife.

Do King’s character flaws mean that we should dismiss his courage, goals, achievements, and the manner in which he inspired millions then and continues to inspire today?

And what of today’s celebrity icons? Do we need to know, or should we care, about Brad Pitt’s marriage or his relationship with his children or should we only concern ourselves with his acting talent and movies? Is the professional slice of Mr. Pitt’s life the only part about which we have a right to stand in judgment or, really, should know anything about? Should we care that Beyoncé recently had twins and displayed them in a tasteless photograph or do we only have a right to express an opinion about her music?

Those who fight for years to become famous are often blind to the irony of their wearing sunglasses in public while dodging photographers in a struggle for privacy. That, as John Lennon once said, seems as silly as trying to get famous in the first place. At the same time, the media, politicians, celebrities, and their handlers all profit from our voyeurism in our rampant violation of the privacy of people we only pretend to know. This is a carefully calculated, sad, and sordid game.

Perhaps we should refuse to play. We could steal the power of show business celebrities and the show business from politics by judging politicians only by their policies and artists only by their art. We could grow up a little. We could use our critical thinking to assess art we like and policies we support without poisoning our opinions with factors about which we have neither a right to know nor capacity to properly judge. We could stop seeking the dark side of the moon.

Take the one-month challenge. Shut off shows and ignore clicks and posts offering nothing but gossip. Ignore the show business of politicians and consider, for example, what policies President Trump or Prime Minister Trudeau have enacted or propose and whether they will make lives better or worse. Re-listen to Lennon and Beyoncé and like or don’t like them for the songs alone. Re-watch a Brad Pitt movie and listen to an old King speech on YouTube and then judge them by the performance and message alone.

The media and publicists will hate it. They lose money and influence when we refuse to play. The politicians will hate it. They lose the power to sway and distract when we concentrate only on legislative action. Some of us may hate it. We may cringe when recalling that the same morality that keeps us from sneaking a peek into our neighbour’s bedroom window at night should keep us from electronically peeking into the private lives of others. That’s okay. Sometimes what we hate at first is what makes us better.

Let’s surrender our desire to be the 16th astronaut. See you on the bright side. 

If you enjoyed this column, please send it along to others and consider checking my other work at http://www.johnboyko.com.  I will be taking a break from blogging for a spell in order to concentrate more fully on the writing of my next book. See you here again in the fall.

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.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it others. Consider leaving a comment, I’d love to hear from you.

 

A Nation of Festivals Making Us Better

We are a nation of festivals. There are film festivals, poetry festivals, rib festivals, art festivals, and every conceivable genre of music festivals. They are fascinating in like a conch blowing silently but convincingly through the ether they gather those of similar interests to form a temporary community. Festivals offer revelry in the acknowledgement that our particular passion is shared. My favourite are literary festivals. They intrigue me because they shouldn’t work.

Canadians read. Canadians read more books per capita than nearly anyone. A lot of folks enjoy books on tablets but most are sticking with the physical kind, the kind you can hold, smell, feel the joy of cracking for the first time, hold in bed without hurting your eyes, drop without breaking, and then shelve as a friend to share your home. Ok, I’m biased.

Canadians write. A generalization that is generally true is that all novels ask the question, “Who am I?” and all non-fiction asks “Who are we?” That Canada is blessed with so many talented writers asking both questions and so many readers reading all that stuff it is little wonder that we always seem to be in a state of existential angst and renewal. That’s a good thing. A reactive society is one of division and anger but a reflective society enjoys more consideration and compassion. Is this Trump versus Trudeau? Maybe that we read so much leads to our fighting so little.

The thing is, though, and the source of my fascination with writing festivals is that both writing and reading are solitary pursuits. Margaret Atwood once observed that you know you are a writer when you are typing away in your office in July about a winter scene and look up and out the window and wonder where the snow went. As an author, I know that feeling. Writing my history books often transports me back to the era that I am investigating and I quite honestly sometimes have trouble getting all the way back. I’m alone in my research. I’m alone in my writing.

But then, whatever I have written is released to the world. It is like I watch a young bird leave the nest. I wish it well. I always know some will like it. I always know some will attack it. I always hope the world will not just ignore it. It is up to the readers. Readers, of course, then buy what writers have spent so many hours silent and alone creating and devote more hours silent and alone to absorbing. Watch someone reading. They are not really there. They’ve been transported. Books are conduits of ideas from one solitary person to another.

The notion of two solitary experiences coming together for a community group hug is the source of my fascination with writing festivals. Writers blinkingly emerge from their writing dens with their pallid skin and reeking of coffee and wine and are suddenly before large groups and asked to talk about what they wrote, how they wrote it, and why they wrote it. For many, it’s like asking a fish to describe water. Readers emerge from their solitary reading spots to quiz the authors and each other about books and ideas. The isolation ends.

A Nation of Festivals

(Photo: Lakefield Literary Festival)

Festivals, like book clubs, lay out ideas to be examined as a community exercise. They remind us that books are like paintings and songs and any other art. Their meaning is only partially controlled by the artist. The rest is up to the experience and mood of the beholder. At festivals, the readers and writers both learn more about the books and ideas in question and about themselves. I am always intrigued when asked questions about my book that I never considered.

I have attended many but my favourite is the Lakefield Literary Festival. I am biased, of course, because I live in the Village of Lakefield. It is the Ontario community in what city people call “cottage country” consisting of only 2,400 people. Lakefield was once home to sisters Catherine Parr Trail and Susanna Moodie who were among Canada’s first writers and much later to Margaret Laurence who was among Canada’s best.

The Lakefield Literary Festival began in 1995 as a one-off banquet to celebrate Margaret Laurence but it became an annual event. It is now among Canada’s premier literary festivals, this year to take place over the weekend of July 15. It draws writers and readers from across the country to enjoy the campus of Lakefield College School and ideas and books and each other.

I will be at the Lakefield Literary Festival in a couple of weeks both speaking and teaching a writing class. I’ll be at Saskatoon’s Word on the Street Festival in September. I know I will enjoy both. I know I will enjoy meeting people who share a passion for writing, reading, books, and ideas. All those writers and readers at these and all the other literary festivals will emerge from their isolation. They’ll contribute to our national conversation by reflecting upon who we are as people and as a broader community. Perhaps all that isolated writing and reading and then all those festival conversations will play a role in making Canada a better place for us all.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it along to others. I hope to meet you in Lakefield in July or Saskatoon in September.

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/

Most Important Bands of All Time

The Beatles are not the best band of all time. Neither is U2 or Led Zeppelin. You see, a teenage John Lennon once snapped, “We’re not a band, we’re a group.” He understood. Lennon’s Quarrymen and then the Beatles were groups. So was the Clash and so are the Rolling Stones and the Eagles. In musical parlance, a group is a self-contained unit providing music and vocals while a band is a collection of musicians creating music either without or to accompany vocals. Forget boy bands. Their name is only part of what’s wrong with them.

So let’s leave groups aside and consider, in rough chronological order, the five most important bands.

  1. Tommy Dorsey Band

The 1930s brought the Depression and the 1940s the Second World War. Year after year people lost homes, loved ones, and faith in the rules they had believed would secure their families and futures. As always happens in eras of tragedy and transition, music filled the emotional void with fun. Swing music was nothing but fun.

Dance halls were everywhere and everywhere were big bands playing jumped up tunes with driving beats, mournful ballads, and goofy novelty numbers. The most influential of the big bands was led by Tommy Dorsey.

Dorsey played trombone, of all things. He reinvented the instrument so that it carried the melody. He promoted band members who stood and, in a nod to jazz, leaned into solos that were different every night. It was art as lightening, existing for the moment. Dorsey also sought the best singers around and handed careers to many including his best find of all, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra toured and recorded 80 songs with the Dorsey band. He learned his vocal styling and discipline from Dorsey’s trombone breathing techniques.

When other bands faded with changing musical tastes, Dorsey continued to evolve his sound and bring more jazz and popular music into his repertoire. His innovative ideas influenced another generation. His band placed an incredible 286 songs on the Billboard charts and he enjoyed 17 number ones. His biggest hit was I’ll Never Smile Again, which, in 1940, was number one for twelve weeks.

In the 1950s he and his brother Jimmy co-hosted a popular show on the new medium of television. He demonstrated courage when he ignored critics and insisted that a new young singer be invited to perform. It was through Dorsey, therefore, that America first saw Elvis Presley.

Tommy Dorsey died in 1956 when only 51 years of age. In 1982, his I’m Getting Sentimental Over You was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and Marie was inducted in 1998. In 1996, the United States Postal Service issued a Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey stamp. His music lives on in singers and bands who believe they are inventing new ideas that Dorsey actually brought to audiences before their grandparents were born. 

  1. Wrecking Crew

Los Angeles session musicians used to arrive wearing suits and obediently read from charts to provide music for whatever commercial, movie, or singer rented their services. It was a nine to five job. That ended in the early 1960s when others began strolling in as the professionals were leaving. They dressed more casually. They played more casually. They could read charts but more often played what they felt. They made suggestions. They took chances. The grumpy old pros said the young bucks would wreck the music industry and so, according to drummer Hal Blaine, their name was coined.

You’ve heard their work if you’ve heard the Monkees, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Jan and Dean, the Partridge Family, Mamas & Papas, Association, 5th Dimension, Grass Roots, the Carpenters, the Byrds, the Turtles, Bread, Simon and Garfunkel, and on and on. Did you think the Monkees were the only group that didn’t play on their own records? You heard the Wrecking Crew if you’ve heard Dean Martin sing Everybody Loves Somebody or Frank Sinatra croon Strangers in the Night.

Sonny Bono once had a rather ordinary sounding song until the bass player, Carol Kaye, suggested a line that was simple in its complexity but riveting as a hook, and The Beat Goes On was born. She later suggested the descending bass notes in the Nancy Sinatra’s Boots. Brian Wilson employed the Wrecking Crew to create the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations and Pet Sounds.

When Wrecking Crew guitarist Glen Campbell struck out on his own, it continued as his studio band. Other members that enjoyed solo success were Leon Russell and Mac Rebennack, who called himself Dr. John. Wrecking crew drummer Jim Keltner played on nearly all the Beatles solo albums, the Concert for Bangladesh, and, under the pseudonym Buster Sidebury, with the Travelling Wilburys. In 2007, the Wrecking Crew was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame.

Turn on an oldies radio station and be guaranteed that within minutes, whether you know it or not, you will hear the Wrecking Crew.

  1. The Band

Born in Arkansas and making a name for himself as a rockabilly wild man, Ronnie Hawkins toured Canada in 1958 and never went home. His music and show was like nothing seen or heard before. It was all made possible by the driving beat and incomparable sound of his band. They were kids. Arkansas native Levon Helm joined Canadians Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko. They practiced all day and played all night. Their playing became as tight as their friendships.

Hawkins called them the Hawks. They quickly grew to be the premier band on Toronto’s Yonge Street strip that became the heart of the burgeoning Canadian music scene. Hawkins was crazy on stage. He yelled. He did back flips. He invented the moonwalk that Michael Jackson would later steal. Nearly any band can back someone who sticks to the songs but it took something all together special to hang on through the hurricane that was Rompin’ Ronnie. Through the antics, alcohol, and smoky haze was the band that never missed a beat, dropped a note, or missed a cue. Hudson’s keyboard work was majestic and rose beyond the limits of three-chord rock ‘n’ roll. Helms played masterful fills while Robertson took guitar leads to the edge of out of control.

In 1964, the band left Hawkins. They toured a little and recorded an unsuccessful album but a year later their ability to back quirky front men was recognized and rewarded when they received a call from Bob Dylan. At that point, Dylan was a tremendously successful folk singer. In July 1965, he had endured angry boos when he had plugged in a telecaster and, backed by Mike Butterfield’s band, sang an electric set at the New Port Folk Festival. Ready for more, and he hired Hawkins’ old band.

The American tour began a month later. It was like nothing anyone had heard before. Woody Guthrie had bedded the Beatles. The marriage of folk, pop, and rock is commonplace now but was then revolutionary. They toured the world and endured more negative reaction. There is film of a Manchester, England concert where someone yells that Dylan is Judas. Dylan snaps back, and then turns to the band, and shouts, “Play it fucking loud!” And they do. They play it loud and they play it well to those who were booing, those who understood, and for posterity.

The band accompanied Dylan back to Saugerties, New York, where, exhausted but exhilarated, they lived and made new music together. From Helms came southern country and from Hudson came classical. From Robertson came pop and his respect for southern history and native culture. From Manuel, and Danko came blues, gospel and traditional bluegrass. Their informal recordings became the Basement Tapes and a decades-long iconic, unheard mystery.

The eclectic talents and interests melded with their years with Hawkins and Dylan to inform their 1968 debut album, Music from Big Pink. They had been Hawkins band then Dylan’s band and now they needed a name. Helms suggested they be known as they were to many already, simply, The Band.

The group enjoyed hit songs and great success and well deserved places in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But it is as a band that they were midwives at the birth of rock n roll in Canada and country-rock around the world. Michael Nesmith, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and others who followed their lead owe a debt to the band called the Band.

  1. The Swampers

Speaking of Lyrnyrd Skynyrd, consider the fourth verse from their most popular song, Sweet Home Alabama:

Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers/And they’ve been known to pick a song or two/Lord they get me off so much/They pick me up when I’m feeling blue/Now how bout you?

The Swampers? You may have never heard of them but, like the Wrecking Crew, you’ve heard them. Entrepreneur Rick Hall built FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. His very first song he recorded was by a shy, hospital orderly named Percy Sledge – the gospel-tinged power ballad When a Man Loves a Woman. The band is brilliant in its restraint. The organ creates a drone and the beat is pulled just slightly before each chorus, allowing tension to build to a climatic release. The notes are smooth, erotic, and let the singer and song do the work.

The record’s success brought attention to Muscle Shoals and more hit records to the world. People dancing to Wilson Pickett’s Mustang Sally were dancing to the Swampers. People swooning to Aretha Franklin’s Respect were loving the Swampers. Those moved by Etta James’ raucous Tell Mama were moved by the Swampers. Few knew the band. Fewer still knew that those motoring the new wave of Black R & B were all white.

None had musical training. But David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, Pete Carr, Will McFarlane, Spooner Oldham, Clayton Ivey, Randy McCormick, and Albert S. Lowe all had soul, imagination, and a willingness to risk.

In 1969, Beckett, Hawkins, Hood, and Johnson formed their own studio called Pro Sound. The Swampers sound and feel, though, remained true to its roots. More singers came to capture its magic. They backed recordings by Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, John Prine, Duane Allman, Boz Scaggs, and the Oak Ridge Boys. They helped the Rolling Stones record Wild Horses and Brown Sugar. Bob Dylan came to record Desire. It’s the Swampers you are enjoying when singing along with the Staple Singers I’ll Take You There, Paul Simon’s Kodachrome, and Bob Seger’s Night Moves.

God was having a particularly good day when he decided to place the intersection of Black and White music in the heart of segregated Alabama and allow its sweet sounds to offer lessons to us all.

  1. E Street Band

Most Important Bands of All Time(Photo: http://www.sfae.com)

New Jersey is tough and the Jersey shore is tougher. It’s Sinatra tough. It’s Sopranos tough. It was tough in the late 1960s when in and around the hardscrabble Ashbury Park a new, hard driving, working class music developed in seedy bars and seedier clubs. Like Liverpool in the early ‘60s, Ashbury Park in the early ‘70s saw bands form and fall apart. The journeymen went to factories and the best to other bands. Among the dwindling elite were Danny Federici, Vini Lopez, Garry Tellent, David Sancious and Clarence Clemons. They came to know each other and became friends with a skinny young Jersey singer named Bruce Springsteen.

Springsteen signed a recording contract in 1972 and offered a job to the best musicians on the Jersey Shore. They rehearsed at Sancious’ mother’s house on the corner of 10th Avenue and E Street. The name was born – The E Street Band. Their first album was entitled Greetings From Ashbury Park. A life of touring began. Some members left and were replaced but the sound grew tighter and even more powerful, and even tougher. The band was strengthened when ace guitarist Steven Van Zandt joined in 1975.

Springsteen became known for his working class anthems and he and the band for their working class dedication to fair play for fair pay. Concerts lasted three hours or more. There were few breaks between songs as the band kept the music or rhythm pulsating with the crowd engaged, enthralled, and enraptured. Songs people knew from the records were reinvented, made longer, more complex, and given more energy and different textures every night. Like the stadium band they became, they played to the back row. Like the bar band they had been, they played requests.

For 15 years, Springsteen recorded and performed without the band but they were reunited in 1995 and have been together ever since. Springsteen was not the same without them. He is better with them at his side and watching his back. Springsteen always affectionately introduces each member and then yells over the cheers: “It’s the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, love-making, legendary E Street Band!”

Try to imagine Born to Run without Clarence’s sax solo. Try to imagine Glory Days without Little Stephens’ guitar and crazy harmonies. They take good songs and made them better. That’s the job of any band but not a job just any band can do. Now try to imagine Bruce Springsteen without the E Street band. I’m guessing he’d be a retired steel worker living in Ashbury Park, strumming his acoustic guitar and wondering about glory days that might have been.

Please share this column with others if you liked it and leave a comment on my choices. Suggestions for most important groups would be welcomed. If you have not seen it – johnboyko.com – has my thoughts on six most important singers.

Time to Change the Faces on Our Money

It’s been loud lately. The tragic popping of gunfire from criminal minds in Paris and Alberta and from Canadian troops in Iraq, along with the sucking sound of the latest oil boom going bust have been loud indeed. Lost in the din have been two related arguments that deserve some attention.

The first began with Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday. Many commemorated our first prime minister as a visionary. Others castigated him as a racist. The second was stirred by a letter from NDP MPs Niki Ashton and Murray Rankin to Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz in support of an effort begun a year ago by Victoria’s Merna Forster to have more women, such as the Famous Five, on our money.

The arguments are related because they go to the heart of our nationhood. Those we choose to celebrate in books or bronze, or on whatever that sticky polymer stuff passing as paper money is, say a great deal about the character traits and achievements we believe represent the best of us.

So perhaps we should remove Sir John from our money. But then, William Lyon Mackenzie King is on our 50, yet in the Second World War he interned Japanese-Canadians who had committed no crimes. Sir Robert Borden is on our 100, yet he approved his party’s virulently anti-Asian British Columbia campaign under the slogan “White Power.” Should they be removed from our money too?

Oscar Peterson banknote

Queen Elizabeth is the only woman currently on our currency. But does our sovereign’s visage remind us of our sovereignty’s limits? Does she represent a political system based on the hereditary passage of power that contradicts current Canadian values and has passed its best-before date? Accordingly, should she be removed from our money?

And what of the Famous Five? Their fame began when Edmonton’s Emily Murphy was appointed Canada’s first female police magistrate. Shortly afterward, an uppity male lawyer said she was unqualified because the constitution listed “Persons” who could be judges with the implication that they were male. Murphy and her Alberta friends took the case all the way to Britain’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council where, in 1929, it was determined that women were Persons. It was an enormous step for women and toward citizenship and equality for all.

However, Emily Murphy was also a novelist who wrote under the pseudonym Janey Canuck. In The Black Candle, published in 1922, she wrote of non-White immigrants running the Canadian drug trade to intentionally defile White women and destroy the White race. The only option, she argued, was to purify Canada by ridding it of all people of colour. Should the writer of such reprehensible ideas be on Parliament hill, or on the Edmonton mural, or on our money? What would Sir John or those currently attacking him say?

The Ashton and Rankin letter states, “Our banknotes are an important opportunity to celebrate the diversity of our country and the innumerable contributions to its history made by people of all genders, ages, religions and ethnicities.” Perhaps agreeing with that very Canadian thought leads to a desire to replace all of the political figures now on our money with those who better animate our collective soul: our artists.

Susanna Moodie banknote

Louis Riel once said, “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” He was right. Painters, poets, authors, songwriters, and sculptors and more speak to our intellects and emotions while inviting us to think deeper about that which truly matters. Let us celebrate those who help us celebrate our spirit.

The Bank of Canada regularly considers recommendations for changes to our currency and advises the minister of finance who signs off on new designs. Let the conversation begin. Mr. Poloz, for our 10, 20, 50 and 100 I recommend Oscar Peterson, Susanna Moodie, Norval Morrisseau, and Alice Munro.

This column originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on February 2, 2015. The Citizen created the images. If you enjoyed it, please share it with others through your favourite social media.