In today’s newsletter is a zine about The Beatles, surfing, and the creative process.
Why don’t you sing the newspaper?
In Jim Jarmusch’s documentary about the Stooges, Gimme Danger, Iggy Pop makes fun of something Andy Warhol said to him when they were staying at the infamous Tropicana Motel: “He said, ‘Why don’t you do some songs… just sing the newspaper. Just sing what it says in the newspaper.’ I haven’t gotten around to it yet, but that was his idea.”
It’s not terrible advice. It worked out for John Lennon, whose lyrics for The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” were inspired while reading the January 17th, 1967 edition of the Daily Mail.
And it worked out for Prince in 1986. He was shook up from an earthquake and reading various newspaper stories in the Los Angeles Times in the week before recording his song, “Sign O’ The Times.” As reported by Duane Tudahl in his fabulous book of Prince’s recording sessions:
Many of the stories… included President Reagan’s “Star Wars” antimissile program, the growing AIDS crisis, the investigation of January’s space shuttle explosion, and stories of drug abuse in the inner city were all big news stories. These blended with the Minneapolis Star Tribune and their reporting about a street gang called “The Disciples.”
Of course, there have been many songwriters who get inspiration from the headlines, and even those who write about the newspaper itself. (Getting poetry from the newspaper is a subject that interests me for obvious reasons.)
Here’s one of my favorites: Bill Callahan in Smog’s “The Morning Paper”:
“The morning paper
is on its way
It’s all bad news
on every page
So roll right over
and go to sleep
The evening sun
will be so sweet”
These songs are like Ezra Pound’s definition of literature: “News that stays news.”
* * *
Related reading: “He could sing the phonebook!”
A plausible mission
Watching this 5-minute cut of never-before-seen footage from Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back, I thought of the beginning of Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake:
I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, “The Beatles did.”
Filed under: The Beatles
Experience #TheBeatlesGetBack, a three-part original docuseries from director Peter Jackson streaming November 25 on @DisneyPlus. Watch the new trailer now. pic.twitter.com/nGYBoNmCcw
— The Beatles (@thebeatles) October 13, 2021
Update 10/13/2021: The full trailer has dropped.
Ditching work to do your job
Here’s a wonderful story about the origin of “Here Comes The Sun” from George Harrison’s memoir, I Me Mine:
“Here Comes the Sun” was written at the time when Apple [Records] was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen: ‘Sign this’ and ‘sign that.’ Anyway, it seems as if winter in England goes on forever, by the time spring comes you really deserve it. So one day I decided I was going to sag off Apple and I went over to Eric Clapton’s house. The relief of not having to go see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric’s acoustic guitars and wrote “Here Comes the Sun.”
Playing is part of the artist’s job description, and sometimes you have to ditch work to do your job.
Sometimes you have to play hooky so you can actually learn something.
(Thanks to @garethchughes for this story and the title of the post.)
Mishearing as a creative act
“I like turning on two radios at the same time and listening to them. I like hearing things incorrectly. I think that’s how I get a lot of ideas is by mishearing something.”
For years I have held the strong belief that you should never look up the lyrics to your favorite songs because the lyrics you think you hear are usually better than the official ones.
You can imagine how delighted I was to learn that Robert Hunter, the lyricist for the Grateful Dead, felt the same way, and wrote about it in the foreword to the band’s complete lyrics:
I’ve generally found that the words to songs I thought I heard in the works of others were more colorful and enigmatically apt than the words I eventually discovered were intended. More to my personal taste. I assume the same is true of my own work. Mishearing can be as much a strength as a liability. People, accidentally overhearing their own thoughts, are inclined to like what they hear, self-recognized at a distance and mistaken for another.
“Back in the day,” he said, he didn’t allow his lyrics to be printed so that listeners “could dub in their own mishearings, adding a bit of themselves to the song.”
Misheard lyrics, by the way, have a name: Mondegreens. Here’s Maria Konnikova on the science behind them in The New Yorker:
“Mondegreen” means a misheard word or phrase that makes sense in your head, but is, in fact, entirely incorrect… Hearing is a two-step process. First, there is the auditory perception itself: the physics of sound waves making their way through your ear and into the auditory cortex of your brain. And then there is the meaning-making: the part where your brain takes the noise and imbues it with significance. That was a car alarm. That’s a bird. Mondegreens occur when, somewhere between the sound and the meaning, communication breaks down. You hear the same acoustic information as everyone else, but your brain doesn’t interpret it the same way.
Mondegreens are an act of creativity — our brain is creating something that isn’t actually there.
I remember Lynda Barry standing in front of an audience and singing the The Young Rascals’ “Groovin’.” Here is how she told the story elsewhere:
There is a lyric I understood as “That would be ecstasy, you and me and Leslie, just groovin’”
I loved this idea of me and one of the Young Rascals and someone named Leslie groovin’ together in that bird singing place. I didn’t know who Leslie was, I didn’t know who the Young Rascals were, I just knew where ever they were was where I wanted to be.
When was in my mid 20’s I heard the song again, and the lyrics were actually
“Life would be ecstasy, you and me endlessly groovin’”
And it was such a disappointment. Because Leslie was gone. And ‘endlessly’ groovin’ didn’t sound like anything. It sounded like an idea of something maybe, but nothing specific. Nothing as personal. And nothing that felt like a place.
It may make more sense– but it wasn’t alive in the way ‘Leslie’ made it alive.
‘Leslie’ didn’t make any sense, it’s nowhere else in the song, but it anchored it for me because it was specific rather than general.
That’s what I was trying to say. That it’s a specific image vs. a general image that tends to be more alive. And useful. And able to take you somewhere.
That idea, that mishearing can take you somewhere, is so powerful. As Tom Waits says in the quote above, he actively courts mishearing, cultivates the “weird ear,” because the mishearing is the beginning of new sounds.
In this epic New Yorker profile of Bruce Springsteen, E Street guitarist Steven Van Zandt remembers recognizing Springsteen’s “drive to create original work”:
In those days, he said, you were judged by how well you could copy songs off the radio and play them, chord for chord, note for note: “Bruce was never good at it. He had a weird ear. He would hear different chords, but he could never hear the right chords. When you have that ability or inability, you immediately become more original.”
There are several examples of songs that were born because of creative mishearing. Stevie Nicks wrote “Edge of Seventeen” after Tom Petty’s wife Jane started telling her how they met:
“She was telling me about Tom [Petty], about when she met him, and she has an incredible Southern accent…and she said that she met him at the age of seventeen, but I thought she said “edge”, and she said “no…age” and I said “Jane, forget it, it’s got to be “edge”. The “Edge of Seventeen” is perfect. I’m going to write a song, ok? And I’m going to give you credit.” She didn’t believe me, you know? She couldn’t believe it when it came out on the album.”
And at least one mondegreen changed the world: Bob Dylan thought the Beatles were singing “I get high!” in “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” so he got them stoned for the first time!
See also: Re-imagining from memory
Mapping the music
After seeing my crude teenage maps of the White Album, @tedmills sent me the cover of Paul McCartney’s 1986 single, “Press.”
“The world keeps showing me these pictures.”
Giles Martin’s new remix of The Beatles’ “White Album” sounds terrific, and it does exactly what it’s supposed to do: it helps me hear a 50-year-old album with fresh ears. In fact, I was surprised how new it sounded, considering it’s the Beatles record I’ve spent the most time with. When I was around 15 or 16, I sat with my headphones and a copy of Beatlesongs, and tried to map out all the instruments in the mix:
Truthfully, I think my obsession with the album had a lot to do with learning about its influence on Radiohead’s OK Computer. (I also listened to a lot of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, but I think that one was a bit beyond my grasp.)
The White Album also appealed to me because it sounded really homemade, like something I could maybe copy with my little Tascam 4-track Portastudio.
I distinctly remember setting up 3 microphones in my mom’s living room and trying to record a “Blackbird” knockoff.
And I remember starting to play with microphone placement — putting the drums in the living room while my mom was at work, and recording with the microphones in the kitchen.
I spent so much time trying to figure out new sounds I could make with my primitive equipment. I’d comb through music magazines for tips and tricks and paste them into my recording notebook. I’d keep a long list of recording ideas for later:
But mostly, I spent so much time listening. Time is the very thing that young people have. (Although, I fear today that it’s being overscheduled away.) I can’t imagine listening to a piece of music as closely now as I did back then. (I can’t imagine arranging my life in a way that I could perform such close listening.)
My sons listen that closely: my six-year-old can differentiate all the different instruments in mixes, and my 3-year-old can recite all the narration passages from this Leonard Bernstein CD. And some adults still listen that closely: In a 2006 interview with Arthur magazine, Joanna Newsom described the way Bill Callahan listens to music:
The way he listens to music is one of the most endearing and sweet things I’ve ever seen. He takes off his shoes, sets them down and gets comfortable. He kneels or sits in front of the record player, lifts the cover, reverently chooses a record, puts it on, closes the cover and just listens, start to finish. Whenever I go to see him and we listen to music like that, I register in myself how much better it feels than other ways of listening, which are like rushing to eat a meal because you’re super-hungry. You need to eat, just like you need to listen to music, but it never feels good if you do it like that. So I am trying to set my life up in a way where I don’t have to listen to music anyway other than putting on a record and sitting and listening.
Though I didn’t become a professional musician or producer or recording engineer, I like to think that this kind of exercise — studying something you love in depth — is valuable no matter what the field or the genre. The results don’t matter. When you study something so closely, in so much depth, you learn what it is to really pay attention. And paying attention is the art that builds a more meaningful and creative life.
Summer is for mono
In 2014, Damon Krukowski (do check out his podcast, Ways of Hearing, and his book, The New Analog) wrote “Back to Mono,” on why summer and mono listening go hand in hand:
The transistor radio sounds right to me in summer. Monaural AM radio reception changes with the weather, the temperature, the time of day, and just as we expose our bodies to the elements more in summer, it makes sense to me that audio should do the same. Plus, mono suits summer broadcasts so well: baseball games, violent storm warnings, the local oldies station (which plays mostly mono records anyway). How would stereo improve any of these?
I saw The Beatles in Mono box set at the library last week and checked it out. Not sure how many people know, but The Beatles saw stereo as a fad, and spent almost all of their time mixing their records in mono, leaving it to the engineers to make the stereo mixes. Brian Wilson mixed Pet Sounds in mono partially because he was deaf in one ear — he literally couldn’t make sense of stereo. (Mono also gave him control over what listeners would hear.) Later, Bruce Springsteen would mix Born To Run in a way that emulated that mono Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” style.
Related: Have you ever noticed how wonderful music from the first half of the 60s and earlier sounds on your tiny iPhone speakers?
McCartney moving the microphone
Flipping through the booklet that comes with the 50th anniversary edition of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, I fell a little in love with this photo of McCartney re-positioning a microphone. I’ve cropped and zoomed him in the image above, but here he is in context:
The others are all at their posts. George at the organ. John in front of an amp. Ringo drumming. But there’s Paul, up on his feet moving a microphone. Why isn’t an engineer doing it for him?
In Geoff Emerick’s memoir, Here, There, and Everywhere, he writes about all the strict rules and restrictions of the recording studio in that era. (When the Beatles first started out, the engineers were still wearing lab coats.) They broke all sorts of rules and protocol for the albums leading up to Pepper’s, and, clearly, the rules had mostly been thrown out the window at this point. Emerick writes that Paul was the most curious of the crew about the recording process. He wanted to get hands-on, which is what he’s doing in this photo: He’s not waiting for some engineer to fix the sound.
Paul would also stay at the studio late after the other band members had gone home to overdub his bass lines one section of the time, getting them as perfect as he could. “There were nights when he would labor until dawn,” Emerick writes, “keeping at it until his fingers were literally bleeding.”
Paul was never my favorite Beatle, and Sgt. Pepper’s has never been my favorite album. (Too much of what John Lennon called “Paul’s granny music” for me.) But looking at this picture and hearing those huge, sweet bass lines on the remix, I admire him more and more. He was working. Moving his own damned microphone.
Powers of Two: A conversation about creativity with Joshua Wolf Shenk
Last weekend at the Texas Book Festival I had the pleasure of interviewing Joshua Wolf Shenk, the author of one of my favorite books of the year, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. I had a hunch that we’d have a lot to talk about, so I recorded our discussion and edited it down (liberally) to the post below. Enjoy.
AK: Let’s start out with The Lone Genius Myth.
JWS: I argue in the book that the lone genius is a mythical creature. Which is not to say that we don’t require solitude and it’s not to say that we might not take sole ownership over our work as you and I both do — we don’t have anybody else’s name on the covers of our books. Yet, there are very often characters offstage who are not acknowledged.