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. 

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Five Things I Know About Music

I blame Mike Nesmith. Also at fault are John Lennon, my Godmother, my cousin, and I suppose my grandmother. You see, my grandmother was the glue that kept our large, extended Ukrainian family together. Among my fondest childhood memories are Christmas parties in the big room downstairs that she had built for such occasions. After a meal set for three times the large number assembled, the tables and chairs were pushed aside for everyone to dance. But it was not records for us for my cousin had a band. And that’s where it began.

My cousin played a big red Guild guitar and it was about the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Like every year, I sat close and watched his every move. When I was eight I was intently watching like usual when my Godmother, resting briefly from the dance floor she loved so much, sat beside me and said she had a special gift. If I loved music so much, she said, then I should study the best. She handed me a copy of Elvis Presley’s first album. Blue Suede Shoes was good but Trying to Get to You was art. I had no idea a singer was allowed to do things like that. The notes and words were putty; they were toys.

album_Elvis-Presley-Elvis-Presley

Just as I was wearing the album to dust, The Monkees debuted on television. Yes, they were a made-up band but there they were alongside the TV fluff of the day with their long hair and music and living on their own in a funky beach house and there was Mike Nesmith playing, and looking a lot like my cousin’s Guild, a great big Gretsch. That did it.

I told my father that I had to have a guitar. He promised to pay half if I saved the rest – a good Dad. I stopped buying Hardy Boys books and salted paper route earnings and cut lawns to make more and soon had what I needed. It was not a Gretsch. It was not even close. It was a cheap, guaranteed-not-to-crack Harmony acoustic. I still have it. I walked eight blocks for lessons every Saturday morning but grew frustrated that the teacher had me plunking away at the Mel Bay Guitar Method when all I wanted was to learn Beatle songs. Yes, I had graduated from Monkees to Beatles and from Mike to John. After three months, I quit and set out to learn on my own.

Harmony guitar The Harmony Guitar

My first gig was in Grade 8 when another skinny boy and I stood stiffly on the big school stage and nervously plucked out Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. In high school I partnered with a friend and we played coffee houses and pubs. While dangerously under age we did a month-long gig at a scruffy bar that was a motorcycle gang hang out. Arguments and fights regularly interrupted our country-rock tunes and earnest originals.

Later, an independent record label heard me in a little bar where I was making some extra cash to support my young family and signed to me a contract. We recorded three 45s (Google it if you have to) and they did OK. The second one did best and even made it to #2 in Sweden – damn Willie Nelson and Always on My Mind!

I still play every day. I still play Nesmith, Lennon, and Presley songs and still write new ones that few ever hear. I now even sing and play in a little band with two friends. We enjoy a gig a month at a local pub – music by neighbours for neighbours for nothing at stake but the fun old tunes provide for all.

From my grandmother’s Burlington party room to Lakefield’s Canoe and Paddle Pub I have learned five things about music:

  1. Genres are junk. There is so much commonality between what critics, radio stations, music companies, I-Tunes, and the rest say are categories of music that the categories are meaningless. There is good music and bad music. Which is which? It’s up to you – enjoy the power to decide for yourself.
  2. The Best is Not Opinion but Math – Nearly every kind of music was available in every era. Which era was best is a mathematics question. Do the math and determine the years in which you were thirteen to seventeen years old. That era produced the best music ever made.
  3. Commitment Matters – Chickens are involved in breakfast but pigs are committed. It’s the same sliding scale with music. To be involved is to listen and to deepen your involvement is to see music played live. To be committed is to play music yourself and to be fully committed is to play with others where you need to not only play but listen. Watch any band that hits a groove and see the endorphins flow. You will know when it happens by their eye contact and at the end they will laugh. Playing music is fun. That’s why they call it playing.
  4. It’s in the Wires – Our brains are wired to learn, remember, and enjoy. Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, has done extensive research and found that music hits all three. Music literally re-wires our neural pathways, enabling us to learn more, remember more, and enjoy more in our lives than if music were absent.
  5. It Never Goes – Those studying Alzheimer’s patients have found that long after sufferers forget everything, they remember music. Know that right now there are old people who cannot recall their names but can still play the piano and sing Sinatra songs. I shudder to think that someday there may be an addled old man in a home somewhere strumming a guitar and warbling I’m a Believer.

With this now written I will turn from my desk, pick up my Martin and we’ll enjoy an hour or so together. Maybe I’ll sing that old Elvis song and remember my Godmother. She’s doing the best she can these days but I bet that despite all that’s been forgotten, she remembers the words better than I do.

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John Lennon Was Right

Reduce the Bible to its essence. Consider the messages of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, the Dali Lama, and Mahatma Ghandi. What is the plea of a baby’s cry or a wounded soldier’s moan? What explains both the sad old man feeding pigeons on a Sunday morning and the smiley young pup at the bar the night before? John Lennon knew – all we need is love.

For a long time I thought I understood. It began on the first day of my last year of high school. I took my assigned seat in Biology class. Decked out in my purple corduroy bell bottoms and high collared green silk shirt and with my curly brown hair falling to my shoulders, I slid into my desk with the practiced sneer of teenage sullenness. Then it happened. To my left sat the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I was gobsmacked. The poor teacher rattled on but I heard nothing. I just had to speak with her. I finally asked to borrow her ruler. There it was. Neatly printed on the back was her name. Nirvana! I drew a few quick lines and returned it, swooning at the thought that my hand had brushed hers.

The tall blond girl and I have been married now for decades. As teenagers we thought we knew everything. We quickly learned that we knew nothing. And now what we know for sure is that everyone makes it up as they go along and do the best they can. After all these years, no one can make me laugh as she does. No one can put me right like she does. She has saved me, made me, remade me, and inspired me to become the best I can be. Without her I would now be dead, in jail, or sleeping under a bridge.

John Lennon John Lennon

Our child arrived when we were little more than children ourselves. Due to the necessity of finding work, we were living hours from home and family. We relied on logic, instinct, each other, and the long-distance wisdom of moms and grand-moms to figure it all out. We did the best we could and we did OK. As the years of teenage angst rendered our lives more interesting we kept pledging that we would not let her moods dictate ours – we never managed it. As all young people do, she circled the dark side of the moon where communications are temporarily lost and then returned as we knew she would to the safe orbit of family and home. We were only ever as happy as her. We are still only as happy as her. We could not be more proud of her.

This morning, like always, our granddaughter arrived at our door. She bounced in with the sunshine of a six year old; always in the moment, default position stuck on happy, and with the assumption that all is well and always will be. We and her parents are not helicopters hovering to mandate her every move or snowplows eliminating every obstacle. We’re more like bowling alley bumper pads. We ensure that she tacks her way forward in her own way and at her own speed with scraped knees and magic band aids while never knowing the gutter.

I watch her climb trees and play hockey. We’ve dressed up as princesses. We bounce on the trampoline and enjoy picnics in our secret spot. We walk downtown for the best hot dog in the world. We throw stones in the river and hang upside down at the playground. We read and walk and laugh and talk and scheme and joke and tease and cuddle. She always runs faster than me, wins every Trouble game, and patiently explains kids shows that I can never manage to understand. And, regrettably, I rub her arm so the insulin needle won’t hurt quite so much.

Without a clue as to her power, my grand-daughter has reshaped me as first my wife and then my daughter did before. She has taught me what I presumed to already know; what I thought I learned way back in Biology class and on those three-in-the-morning nights when the baby just wouldn’t go back to sleep. She taught me how to love all over again and, this time, more profoundly than I ever imagined possible.

I consider people begging for change on the sidewalk the same as those filling their lives with stuff and screens. I see people defined by their job and whose minds are at work even when their bodies are home the same as those stuck in perpetual adolescence whose buddies are the centres of their circles. I understand the holes in their hearts. It’s sad. I know they will never be filled by the next coin, thing or app, or by the next promotion or beer. Everyone, of course, is free to make their own way. But during the journey, words, gifts, and promises ring hollow and echo silence. Time and attention, on the other hand, skywrite what matters.

I have done a lot, travelled a lot, and accomplished a lot in my life, and have a lot more left to do. But I am convinced that the only reason I am here is to love the three women in my life and to be loved by them. All the rest is background music. Next January I will meet a new teacher who, now that I think I understand, will begin the instruction all over again. I can’t wait. But for now, tomorrow morning, when my grand-daughter arrives for school and what she calls second breakfast, she will remind me once again, as she always does – John Lennon was right.

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The Day I Was Tear Gassed

THE DAY I WAS TEAR GASSED

Canadians are nice. We seem to revel in our international reputation as being so nice that when bumped we say sorry or when queue-jumped we say nothing. A problem, of course, is that a slight scratch beneath of the surface of ourselves and our history reveals that we are really not that nice at all.

I glimpsed beneath those surfaces in April, 2001. After reading about the 1999 troubles in Seattle and with Horton Hears a Who in our minds – I swear – my dear wife and I left our little Ontario village and headed to Quebec City. We were ready to add our little yop to voices being raised in concern over cascading corporate power on display at the third Summit of the Americas conference. As I am a historian and my wife’s degree is in political science, we were curious about being witness to the making of history and a political point.

We arrived in time to join a wondrously joyful parade. Colourful banners and flags were hoisted above thousands of people singing, strumming guitars and some even dancing on stilts. There were old people and children. There were families and groups who had obviously journeyed here together and other that had spontaneously come together. Most of the signs were serious and many were good natured. Many expressed self-interest and reminded me a little of the old Buffalo Springfield song as they seemed to shout “Hooray for Our Side”. We walked slowly beneath a wonderfully cloudless blue sky enjoying the positive, party atmosphere and folks who were taking their messages but not themselves too very seriously.

The world leaders discussing the possibility of creating a Free Trade Area of the Americas, of course, didn’t see the parade. They were ensconced far away and up the hill in the National Assembly building behind 4 km of fence and cordons of police. At the parade’s end most people milled about and there were hugs and goodbyes. But I couldn’t leave. I could not go home without venturing up to see the so-called red zone, the area closest to the fence, where the streets were blocked and businesses shuttered.

As I walked up the hill it was if I could hear the theme to some Clint Eastwood spaghetti western in my head. I walked slowly and then slower still. As I reached the outer limits of the red zone I was stunned. It was like an eclipse had suddenly blotted the sun and the world had morphed into black and white. It was eerily quiet. The parade had been a party but this was a war. The air smelled of gasoline. The streets were dirty. People were dressed in varieties of battle fatigues and many had bandanas and goggles dangling on their chests. No one smiled.

Down a narrow street I saw a group of about twenty young people sitting in a circle and singing John Lennon’s Imagine. Strung behind them from building to building was the silver, gleaming 3 meter high chain-link fence. Behind the fence was a row of police officers. They were in black riot gear with face guards down and hand-held shields up. They looked every bit like a row of Darth Vaders. Each officer held a club and each smacked it onto their left palms to the song’s beat – ones and threes. They could not have been more intimidating. I guess that was the point.

I moved on to find a spot where I could be alone to swallow the metallic taste of adrenaline and catch my breath for I suddenly realized that I was breathing as if in a race. Around the corner I found another stretch of fence blocking the road before me with another row of police officers behind it; but I was alone. I did what I always do when I see a police officer; I smiled and waved. None waved back. In a minute or so a man about my age joined me and we stood chatting quietly. We were about ten feet from the fence, looking at each other and not the officers off to our right. No one else was near. We discovered that curiosity had drawn us both from Ontario to the parade and then up the hill and that we were both shocked by the incredibly tense atmosphere. We traded ideas about a restaurant for dinner. We were just two middle-aged guys dressed in shorts and golf shirts, very much tourists and not terrorists.

We were suddenly startled when a silver canister crashed behind us and white-gray tear gas spewed forth. We instinctively spun away and blindly careened right into the fence. The line of cops charged forward and smashed it with their clubs. We turned and stumbled through the noxious cloud with eyes and lungs on fire. A masked and khaki angel pulled me to a curb, sponged my eyes from a galvanized pail, secured a red kerchief over my nose and mouth, told me to run when I could, and then was gone. I have no idea what happened to my companion. I staggered dazed and bewildered as people ran past in both directions shouting that crazy Canadian jumble of French, English and profanity that transcended them both.

Image

Woozy and blinded, I wobbled down the road and happened upon a group of young people shouting through the fence at yet another line of storm troopers. I turned and joined them, yelling every ugly epithet my years of school yards and hockey dressing rooms had taught me. But then, in mid-tirade, it was like I suddenly awoke. Perhaps the gas had worn off. Perhaps my righteous temper had peaked. I was suddenly embarrassed that every ounce of anger I had imprisoned since childhood had been so quickly and completely un-caged. I was shocked at my rage and the sound of my own voice and what I heard that voice shouting.

I stumbled back to the sidewalk across the street and stood watching the two groups of people – protesters and police – probably much the same age, who probably grew up in similar neighbourhoods, separated only by twists of fate and a fence that I was suddenly glad was there. My youngest brother is a police officer and I knew that he was one of the helmeted cops assembled that day. He may have been among those standing in silence before me now; perhaps he was the target of my crazy abuse. I needed to get out of there.

I walked back down the hill to meet my wife and breathlessly told her what had happened. We ventured cautiously up the hill just a little so she could glimpse the place but we then turned back and were soon in our car and heading for home.

I found out later that while my companion and I were very innocently chatting, the security system on the other side of the red zone, far from where we were, had faltered. Protesters or anarchists or whatever they were had torn down part of the fence at Boulevard René Lévesque and police had reacted around the whole perimeter with gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. In their attempt to re-establish order, police were attacking those on the fences and those singing songs. They attacked those with rocks and those with guitars. They attacked those administering first aid. And they attacked my companion and me, over a kilometer from the real trouble, who had done nothing.

On the streets of Quebec City I left a certainty about myself along with my naive conviction that Canadians are nice. I am no different than anyone else. As individuals, nearly all rational Canadians are guided by ethical and moral codes that afford us the opportunity to forge happy lives, secure in our nearly always rational society. But sometimes we find ourselves in crowds. In crowds we occasionally do things that we would never remotely consider doing on our own – like swearing at police officers, tearing down security fences, smashing store windows or overturning cars. Sometimes it’s for a political or social cause and other times it’s simply because our team lost the big game.

Riots are not nice. Neither are all the people who perpetrate them nor all the police who stop and sometimes start them. And yet, riots are as much a part of Canada’s civil society as voting and kids’ hockey and soccer leagues. We are a nation of riots. Consider the 1848 Quebec City Parliament Buildings riot, the 1907 Vancouver Race Riot, the 1929 Winnipeg General Strike riot, Regina’s 1935 On To Ottawa Trek riot, the 1955 Rocket Richard riot and many, many more. Some led to good things happening and others to nothing more than the revealing of ugliness and an undercurrent of furious indignation that we thought only existed elsewhere.  Perhaps we need to think about the riots as I thought of my reaction to being caught up in one. That’s what history for – to teach, to expose, to challenge.

The day I was tear gassed changed me. It made me a little more reflective and a whole lot more wary. It did not rob me of my optimism for Canada, pride in being Canadian or my respect for those who legally and reasonably protest or those who reasonably and legally keep law and order in our society. I still believe that Canadians are inherently nice but my being tear gassed made me put aside old comforting thoughts and ponder the degree to which our niceness is a thin and vulnerable veneer.