Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Lennon

We are the walrus

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Paul McCartney

Being a parent sometimes feels like an endless series of compromises and workarounds, but I know I’ve done at least one thing right: my daughter may be less than two years old, but she already loves the Beatles. And this has much less to do with me than with Lennon and McCartney themselves. After I picked up a record player for Christmas last year, I gradually came to realize that the turntable I’d gotten for myself could be just as important for Beatrix: it’s easy for me to put on a record at breakfast and play it to the end, and the physical albums and sleeves, which are more interesting to a baby than an iTunes playlist, help lock in the idea of what music really is. Ever since, I’ve been buying records partially with her in mind. At the center of my collection these days are The Beatles 1962-1966 and 1967-1970, otherwise known as as The Red and Blue Albums, and even I’ve been astonished by the effects they’ve had. I’ve caught Beatrix humming along to “Hey Jude” at coffee shops and rounding off the last line of the chorus to “Magical Mystery Tour,” and maybe my proudest moment as a father so far has been when she pointed to a picture of a walrus and said “Goo goo goo joob.”

But what strikes me the most about these songs is how neatly they dovetail with the vocabulary my daughter already has. Take “Hello, Goodbye,” for instance. Beatrix likes to sing the last word of each line, so it starts to sound like a miniature lexicon of baby’s first words: “yes,” “no,” “stop,” “go,” “goodbye,” “hello.” The same is true of her favorite songs by other artists: I don’t think she would have latched on so strongly to “Let it Go” if the chorus hadn’t given her a chance to shout “go,” “more,” and “door.” As a result, I’ve found myself listening to old songs in a new way. Like any Beatles fan, I’ve always been floored by the lyrical complexity on display there, but I’m even more impressed by how even their most extravagant inventions are grounded in an almost primal simplicity. Hearing them now, I can’t help noticing how often the same words and rhymes recur, or how half of the lines seem to end with “you.” (“Love, love me do / You know I love you,” “I’ll send it along / With love from me to you,” “Please please me, oh yeah / Like I please you”—and that’s just from the first side of 1962-1966.)

Stephen Sondheim

Which is really just a reflection of basic songwriting craft. When you’re listening to a pop song on the radio—whether it’s “Happy,” “Wrecking Ball,” “Fancy,” or the summer earworm of your choice—you know exactly what the title is once you’ve heard the first verse, even if you’ve never heard the song before. That isn’t an accident: in the standard AABA structure, there’s a title spot, a moment within the dominant melodic phrase that tells you what the song is called. As Sheila Davis writes in The Craft of Lyric Writing:

Traditionally, there are two title spots in the AABA: in either the first line or the last line of the verse. Skilled lyricists intuitively pinpoint the music’s most identifiable phrase, drop in the title, and work from there, forward or backward.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t important exceptions, and the overreliance on such formulas can lead to boring, interchangeable music. But songwriters have come a long way by relying on similar rules of thumb, and like most creative rules, they serve as a kind of safety net when you’re putting a song together for the first time.

Not surprisingly, it’s all too easy to focus on the formula, as many skeptical early listeners of the Beatles did, and assume that there’s nothing else there. (Which, frankly, is often the case with the Top 40, and that’s just fine.) But what Lennon and McCartney grasped from the beginning, then refined and developed in the full sight of the world, is how a simple hook can be an entry point that allows a song to burrow much deeper. Lyric writing can sometimes feel like the leading edge of writing in general, if only because it’s so linear and transient: once a lyric has been sung, it’s gone, which is why smart writers have developed so many tricks to keep their words and images alive in the listener’s mind. After spending enough time in the crucible of pop songwriting, most lyricists come to conclude, as Stephen Sondheim does, that the paramount virtue is clarity, without which nothing else matters. The “rules” of songwriting are really just a series of tactics for enforcing clarity in a medium that can’t survive without it. And the mark of a great song that it can convey complex ideas and emotions—or even inspired nonsense—while still allowing a baby to sing along.

Written by nevalalee

August 4, 2014 at 9:54 am

Two of a kind

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Paul McCartney and John Lennon

Over the last few weeks, it’s been hard to avoid Joshua Wolf Shenk, an essayist and author whose new book, Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, has received prominent play in such outlets as The Atlantic and the New York Times. At first glance, Shenk’s argument is compelling, even seductive. Meaningful creative work, he says, isn’t the creation of solitary geniuses, but of interpersonal exchanges, either through explicit collaboration or more subtle dialogues often centering on pairs. Pointing to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, he reminds us that even if many of their greatest songs were written largely by one or the other, all were born out of a cycle of mutual competition and reaction: “Penny Lane” is part of a conversation with “Strawberry Fields Forever,” to the point where it’s hard to imagine either one without its counterpart on the flip side. As different as Paul and John may have been, neither was ever as good without the other, and their collaboration was greater than the sum of its parts. “The lone genius,” Shenk concludes in the Times, “is a myth that has outlived its usefulness.”

Well, maybe. Like many authors with a thesis—and a book—to sell, Shenk occasionally overstates his own argument, sometimes in ways that quietly undermine his most valuable points. He notes, correctly, that Shakespeare’s plays emerged from an atmosphere of collaboration: “Surviving records show three or four or even five playwrights receiving pay for a single production, according to the Columbia professor James Shaprio.” This is true enough, but it ignores the inconvenient fact that Shakespeare’s work still feels qualitatively different, to most thoughtful readers, from other works produced by an identical process. If collaboration was the most powerful factor involved, we’d find masterpieces on the level of Hamlet from the likes of John Ford, Thomas Middleton, and John Webster, all of whom worked in the exact same way. Instead, they gave us a body of plays that are remembered today, to the extent that they’re read at all, because of their proximity to Shakespeare. And when it comes to the origins of that Shakespearian difference, we’re left, frustratingly, with that “mythical” lone genius. (It’s unclear, incidentally, who is supposed to be promulgating that particular myth these days; if anything, modern critical theory and literary analysis is fixated to a fault on social and historical contexts.)

The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

Shenk muddies his case further by failing to distinguish—at least in the excerpts and articles I’ve read—between real creative pairs, like Lennon and McCartney, and instances in which an essentially solitary artist or thinker benefited from a confidant or trusted critic. He approvingly cites the example of Michele Besso, whom Einstein called “the best sounding board in Europe,” and laments the fact that “most Vera Nabokovs never get acknowledged.” But nobody seriously doubts that even the most idiosyncratic geniuses need to work their ideas out with others, or that many great works of art have been rooted in a productive friendship or marriage. We often don’t know what we think about something until we hear what we have to say about it, and it’s a blessing to find someone who pushes us to be more thoughtful or original than we’d be on our own. Yet this all comes down to saying that geniuses, like everybody else, are happier among friends than alone, and that truly original thinkers will seek out companions who bring out their best. It’s possible, as Shenk says, this fact deserves more emphasis. But in the end, it just boils down to the same mystery as before.

To be clear, I like a lot of what Shenk is saying. Creativity is about combinations, or the movement between extremes, and we often find fruitful pairings of ideas when we talk things out with those we trust. But while it might be tempting to champion the social spaces where such fertilization can take place, like “the crowd-sourced Wikipedia or the writer’s room at The Daily Show,” it’s only part of the story, and not even the most interesting part. No truly great novel has ever emerged from collaboration: it’s a process that makes considerable demands on an individual’s ability to tolerate solitude, introspection, and meticulous work in private. We’ve all known great talkers and dreamers who wove spellbinding patterns of ideas in conversation but seemed incapable of setting them down in a more permanent form, something that demands, alas, that we spend a lot of time alone. Collaboration has its place, and it certainly fascinates me, but it’s a mistake to call it “a more truthful model” than solitary genius, or to imply that we’ve all been willfully ignoring the context in which great work arises. It’s another promising approach to the central unknown of the creative life, but it only reminds us that creativity—together or alone—will do whatever it takes to live another day.

Imitate everyone you know

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Well you can imitate everyone you know
Yes you can imitate everyone you know…

—The Beatles, “Dig a Pony”

Writing, like almost everything else in life, is learned primarily by imitation. Even the greatest writers began by imitating artists they admired—the young Shakespeare, for one, openly imitated Marlowe. And while it may seem counterintuitive, the more thoroughly and consciously you imitate your artistic heroes when you first begin to write, the easier it is to produce original work later on, once you’ve acquired the tools you need.

Here’s how John Lennon, who seems like so great an original today, describes his earliest period as a songwriter:

In the early days, I would often write a melody, a lyric in my head to some other song because I can’t write music. I would carry it around as somebody else’s song and then change it when putting it down on paper, or down on tape—consciously change it because I knew somebody’s going to sue me or everybody’s going to say, “What a rip-off.”

Lennon, it goes without saying, eventually learned how to write melodies on his own. And while it might seem hard for a novelist to imitate another writer to the same degree—by writing a novel that mirrors an existing novel beat for beat, as lyrics might be fitted to an existing melody—it’s certainly possible. Lawrence Block, in his nice little book Writing the Novel, quotes a story from the novelist Harry Crews:

I guess I really learned, seriously learned, how to write just after I got out of college when I pretty much literally ate Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair…I took The End of the Affair, and I pretty much reduced the thing to numbers. I found out how many characters were in it, how much time was in it…I found out how many cities were in the book, how many rooms, where the climaxes were and how long it took Greene to get to them.

…And then I said, “I’m going to write me a damn novel and do everything he did.” I knew I was going to waste—but it wasn’t a waste—a year of my time. And I knew that the end result was going to be a mechanical, unreadable novel. But I was trying to find out how the hell you did it. So I wrote the novel, and it had to have this many rooms, this many transitions, etc. It was the bad novel I knew it would be…And that’s how I learned to write.

Now, it probably isn’t necessary to write an entire novel using this method—although it couldn’t hurt, if you’re serious about internalizing the basics of craft. But it’s often a helpful exercise to go through a novel you admire and break it down to an outline of chapters, scenes, and characters. Ideally, since you’re going to be studying it so closely, the book should represent the genre at its peak: for a thriller, for example, it might be The Day of the Jackal or The Silence of the Lambs. And once you’ve outlined somebody else’s story, you’ll be in a much better position to outline an original work of your own.

Without the nuts and bolts of craft, which can only be acquired through imitation and hard work, even the most original story will remain unexpressed. But in the end, of course, true originality can’t be reduced to a formula:

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

December 8, 2010 at 7:45 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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