Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Paul McCartney

Asimov’s close encounter

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By the early seventies, Isaac Asimov had achieved the cultural status, which he still retains, of being the first—and perhaps the only—science fiction writer whom most ordinary readers would be able to name. As a result, he ended up on the receiving end of a lot of phone calls from famous newcomers to the field. In 1973, for example, he was contacted by a representative for Woody Allen, who asked if he’d be willing to look over the screenplay of the movie Sleeper. Asimov gladly agreed, and when he met with Allen over lunch, he told him that the script was perfect as it was. Allen didn’t seem to believe him: “How much science fiction have you written?” Asimov responded: “Not much. Very little, actually. Perhaps thirty books of it altogether. The other hundred books aren’t science fiction.” Allen was duly impressed, turning to ask his friends: “Did you hear him throw that line away?” Asimov turned down the chance to serve as a technical director, recommending Ben Bova instead, and the movie did just fine without him, although he later expressed irritation that Allen had never sent him a letter of thanks. Another project with Paul McCartney, whom Asimov met the following year, didn’t go anywhere, either:

McCartney wanted to do a fantasy, and he wanted me to write a story out of the fantasy out of which a screenplay would be prepared. He had the basic idea for the fantasy, which involved two sets of musical groups: a real one, and a group of extraterrestrial imposters…He had only a snatch of dialogue describing the moment when a real group realized they were being victimized by imposters.

Asimov wrote up what he thought was an excellent treatment, but McCartney rejected it: “He went back to his one scrap of dialogue, out of which he apparently couldn’t move, and wanted me to work with that.”

Of all of Asimov’s brushes with Hollywood, however, the most intriguing involved a director to whom he later referred as “Steve Spielberg.” In his memoir In Joy Still Felt, Asimov writes:

On July 18, 1975, I visited Steve Spielberg, a movie director, at his room in the Sherry-Netherland. He had done Jaws, a phenomenally successful picture, and now he planned to do another, involving flying saucers. He wanted me to work with him on it, but I didn’t really want to. The visual media are not my bag, really.

In a footnote, Asimov adds: “He went on to do it without me and it became the phenomenally successful Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I have no regrets.” For an autobiography that devotes enormous amounts of wordage to even the most trivial incidents, it’s a remarkably terse and unrevealing anecdote, and it’s hard not to wonder if something else might have been involved—because when Asimov finally saw Close Encounters, which is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this week with a new theatrical release, he hated it. A year after it came out, he wrote in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine:

Science Digest asked me to see the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind and write an article for them on the science it contained. I saw the picture and was appalled. I remained appalled even after a doctor’s examination had assured me that no internal organs had been shaken loose by its ridiculous sound waves. (If you can’t be good, be loud, some say, and Close Encounters was very loud.) To begin with there was no accurate science in it; not a trace; and I said so in the article I wrote and which Science Digest published. There was also no logic in it; not a trace; and I said that, too.

Asimov’s essay on Close Encounters, in fact, might be the most unremittingly hostile piece of writing I’ve seen by him on any subject, and I’ve read a lot of it. He seems to have regarded it as little more than a cynical commercial ploy: “It made its play for Ufolators and mystics and, in its chase for the buck, did not scruple to violate every canon of good sense and internal consistency.” In response to readers who praised the special effects, he shot back:

Seeing a rotten picture for the special effects is like eating a tough steak for the smothered onions, or reading a bad book for the dirty parts. Optical wizardry is something a movie can do that a book can’t, but it is no substitute for a story, for logic, for meaning. It is ornamentation, not substance. In fact, whenever a science fiction picture is praised overeffusively for its special effects, I know it’s a bad picture. Is that all they can find to talk about?

Asimov was aware that his negative reaction had hurt the feelings of some of his fans, but he was willing to accept it: “There comes a time when one has to put one’s self firmly on the side of Good.” And he seemed particularly incensed at the idea that audiences might dare to think that Close Encounters was science fiction, and that it implied that the genre was allowed to be “silly, and childish, and stupid,” with nothing more than “loud noise and flashing lights.” He wasn’t against all instances of cinematic science fiction—he had liked Planet of the Apes and Star Wars, faintly praising the latter as “entertainment for the masses [that] did not try to do anything more,” and he even served as a technical consultant on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But he remained unrelenting toward Close Encounters to the last: “It is a marvelous demonstration of what happens when the workings of extraterrestrial intelligence are handled without a trace of skill.”

And the real explanation comes in an interview that Asimov gave to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, in which he recalled of his close encounter with Spielberg: “I didn’t know who he was at the time, or what a hit the film would be, but I certainly wasn’t interested in a film that glorified flying saucers. I still would have refused, only with more regret.” The italics are mine. Asimov, as I’ve noted before, despised flying saucers, and he would have dismissed any movie that took them seriously as inherently unworthy of consideration. (The editor John W. Campbell was unusually cautious on the subject, writing of the UFO phenomenon in Astounding in 1959: “Its nature and cause are totally indeterminable from the data and the technical understanding available to us at the time.” Yet Asimov felt that even this was going too far, writing that Campbell “seemed to take seriously such things as flying saucers [and] psionic talents.”) From his point of view, he may well have been right to worry about the “glorification” of flying saucers in Close Encounters—its impact on the culture was so great that it seems to have fixed the look of aliens as reported by alleged abductees. And as a man whose brand as a science popularizer and explainer depended on his reputation for rationality and objectivity, he couldn’t allow himself to be associated with such ideas in any way, which may be why he attacked the movie with uncharacteristic savagery. As I’ve written elsewhere, a decade earlier, Asimov had been horrified when his daughter Robyn told him one night that she had seen a flying saucer. When he rushed outside and saw “a perfect featureless metallic circle of something like aluminum” in the sky, he was taken aback, and as he ran into the house for his glasses, he said to himself: “Oh no, this can’t happen to me.” It turned out to be the Goodyear blimp, and Asimov recalled: “I was incredibly relieved!” But his daughter may have come even closer to the truth when she said years later to the New York Times: “He thought he saw his career going down the drain.”

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.

The real thing

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It's the real thing

I don’t think there’s anything better in this world than an icy bottle of Mexican Coke, made with real sugar, with a slice of lemon. My wife and I have recently taken to picking up a six-pack of it whenever we visit our local grocery store, and for the past few weeks, it’s been my afternoon treat—although you have to do it right. The lemon is essential, and the bottle needs to be as cold as possible, which means ten minutes or so in the freezer before I pop the cap. The other day, though, I put one in the freezer and promptly forgot about it for hours. When I finally retrieved it, anxious at the thought of losing something so precious, I found, to my surprise, that the Coke was still liquid, at least at first glance. As soon as I added the lemon, however, the entire bottle nucleated at once, transforming its contents before my eyes into something brown, slushy, and delicious. (I’m not the first person to observe this phenomenon, of course: apparently there are vending machines in Hong Kong that sell bottles of supercooled Coke, and you can read more about the science behind it here.)

And because this is how my mind works, and also because I wanted an excuse to talk about it on this blog, I was struck by how much this resembled the process in which an idea takes root in the brain. If you’re a writer, you’ve felt it before: the moment when the seed crystal of a single image or concept rockets through your imagination, altering everything it touches, and transforms a pool of unrelated thoughts into something crystalline and structured. I’ve spoken about this before in relation to my own work. When I was researching The Icon Thief, I started with the vague desire to write a novel about the art world, but it wasn’t until I saw a picture of Duchamp’s Étant Donnés that the rest locked into place: at once, the story had its central image, the engine that would drive the narrative all the way to its ending. The same was true of the Dyatlov Pass incident in City of Exiles and the Shambhala story in Eternal Empire. In each case, I immediately knew what I’d found, and within seconds, a shapeless and unformed web of impressions became a structure on which I could build something substantial.

Vending machine of supercooled Coke

But you need to be ready for it. Coke needs to be supercooled first before it can freeze in an instant, and a long period of preparation is equally necessary for an idea to take hold. I don’t think I would have been nearly as struck by Étant Donnés, at least not as the basis for a novel, if I hadn’t already saturated myself for weeks with books and articles on art. The ideas for the next two books had the ground prepared for them by their predecessor: a world of characters and potential relationships was there already, waiting to be catalyzed. Habit, as I’ve said before, is just a way of staying in practice—and of physically being at the keyboard—while you wait for inspiration to strike, and that’s as true of the search for ideas as for the writing process itself. Even if you don’t have a particular project in mind, it’s necessary to think as much as possible like a novelist as you go about your daily business: looking for connections, images, moments of behavior that might be incorporated into something more. This requires taking good notes, and also supercooling your mind into that state of receptivity without which even the best idea can settle briefly into place without triggering a larger reaction.

Of course, some ideas are like ice-nine; if you touch them even lightly, the reaction occurs instantaneously. It happened to Peter Benchley, walking along the beach, when an idea occurred to him that would change the course of popular entertainment forever: “What if a shark got territorial?” But Benchley had been thinking about sharks for a long time, and he was a professional writer—not to mention the son and grandson of writers who were famous in their own right. Similarly, Samuel Coleridge dreamed of Kubla Khan’s palace only after reading about it in Purchas his Pilgrimage,  and there’s a good reason that the melody for “Yesterday” happened to drift into the dreaming mind of Paul McCartney and not some other young Liverpudian. The more we look at any case of “sudden” inspiration, the more it seems like the result of a long incubation, arising in a mind that has been prepared to receive it. The process can be a quiet, private one, unperceived even by the artist himself, as superficially dormant as that bottle of Coke in the freezer. But once you feel it, when you’re ready, you’ll know it’s the real thing.

Written by nevalalee

October 24, 2013 at 8:46 am

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