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.
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.
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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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.
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The news usually rolls over me but Orlando struck a nerve. For some reason, the overlapping hatreds represented in the reprehensible act dropped my jaw and moistened my cheeks. It led me to consider all that I simply don’t understand. It led me to consider ancient ideas in our modern world. It led me to consider simplicity itself.
I see the world’s religions as birthday party presents. They appear in different sized and shaped boxes and wrapped in various coloured paper but they all contain the same gift. They each offer community and love. We each feel better if we are part of a group and a religion offers a group of millions spread around the globe. Meanwhile, we each feel a little better if unfathomable questions are answered such as why are we here and each offers the same answer – to love one another.
The first gift I get, for we are social animals and community is important. It is what offers warmth and belonging to those who identify as a member of the Maple Leafs nation, or a Jimmy Buffett Parrot Head, or even those collecting friends on Facebook. It is the second one, the offering of love as an answer to difficult questions, that gives me pause.
You see I used to teach world religions and so I carefully read the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran. I then read texts about each written by scholars with much bigger brains than mine. It was hard. My struggle was to reconcile the overarching message in each with some of the contradictory lines within them. Each speaks of love for all. But each also promotes intolerant exclusion. Each speaks of the Supreme Being as the only arbiter of justice. But each recommends that we judge and punish on our own. Each promotes the notion of free will. But each demands blind obedience.
Love, the primary message in each of the books, gets lost in the complexity of the contradictions.
Contradictions are fine. We are complicated beings and there are good and bad urges within us all. I am certain that only Frank Sinatra has exited this life with only a few regrets. John Lennon wrote All You Need is Love. In another song he wrote, “I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man.” Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner who wrote, “All men are created equal.”
Contradictions become dangerous when we seek religion’s first gift but forget its second. As our lives become jumbled with messages about what stuff we should buy to make ourselves happier, or told to measure ourselves by the size of our cars, wallets, houses, or Facebook friend list, or slashed by lost loves, jobs, or dreams, then we tend to turn to whatever community we can. We turn to simplicity. We yearn for the comfort of simple certainty.
Unfortunately, there are too many among us ready to exploit that yearning by picking one of the many contradictions in the holy books and foisting one side as not a sliver of the truth but the whole truth. The Bible says love everyone but it also says homosexuality is wrong. The Koran says love everyone but it also demands no mercy toward one’s enemy in a time of war.
Donald Trump promotes simple answers to complex questions in his war against “the other.” ISIS does the same thing. They are both doing with the Bible and Koran as the NRA is doing with contradictions within the American Constitution. Ancient documents are being misrepresented and exploited as weapons in modern fights not to unite, as was their intention, but to divide. Not to urge conversations but to end them. Not to have us see the gifts within that would allow us to live together in peace but to reject those gifts and have us separate into smaller and smaller communities and to build walls, literally in Trump’s case, between them.
So today I will weep for the fallen but be wary of those speaking of Orlando by seeking simple explanations and simpler solutions. I will respect those respecting complexity. I will reject those promoting themselves and more division and greater intolerance. I will forget those saying the attack was motivated by religion and so all religion is wrong and respect those accepting that anything as complex as religion will always be available to those wishing to exploit its contradictions for selfish ends. I will also respect those who reject religion altogether as an expression of the free will that all religions espouse. I will respect those whose words and actions promote a broader community and love which, after all, beneath the different paper and within the different boxes are all religions’ primary gift.
And, in the end, I will respect those understanding that we are all in this together and that we must get through this crushing moment and the difficult challenges ahead, together.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.