Revisionist

"Congratulations! You've just purchased our worst album." - Elvis Costello, liner notes for Goodbye Cruel World

People who know me, know I'm a huge fan of Elvis Costello. No, not a fan. A FANATICAL follower of Declan Patrick MacManus. 

There are few musicians alive that can match Elvis' genius and almost none that touch the sheer fecundity of his creative output.

That's why I was so excited to tune into one of my new favorite podcasts, Revisionist History, to hear an entire episode dedicated to him. The podcast is the work of another towering intellectual, Malcolm Gladwell, and each episode is a total gem that is wildly different from the next in theme.

The reason I'm sharing this is because Episode 7's theme is about two different ways of viewing the creative genius: Conceptual vs. Experimental.

The Conceptual Genius is one that has the big picture all contained in their mind and diligently goes about translating that pure vision from their heads into the external world.

The Experimental Genius is one that might not have a clear vision of what they want to say but has a starting point from which they can tinker and tweak, composting the the idea, turning it over and over, until something emerges -- sometimes over a long period of time.

I think the later kind of process is something that provides a better template for beginners -- those who are still honing their craft. It treats inspiration through iteration. This is important because, as artists, we can often be intimidated by the heights we're striving to reach. Ira Glass put this beautifully when he said,

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

So learning how to flow and be organic can be a powerful philosophy in getting us over this frustration of our tools for expression (aka our "craft"), which are limited, while we still move forward.

Listen to the episode

My first introduction to this style came in a writing course in college. We listened to an album called "It's Not Too Bad". It was the collected demos of a little song called "Strawberry Fields Forever" by John Lennon. Throughout the album you go from the first seeds of the the song, to its half-baked introduction to the other Beatles, to it's final honing in the studio.

It's notoriously hard to find the album but there are some collections of the tracks scattered on Youtube.

Here are some of the earliest demos. In these first recordings, Lennon is strumming through chords in a sort of continuous loop playing with them in a kind of mantra and tweaking the melody in garbled nonsense words, what Jeff Tweedy of Wilco refers to as a "Mumble Track". Cool side note, at the end you get to hear the very first time he ever sings "Let me take you down....". Amazing.

 

Then listen again as it starts to take shape.

I don't know about you, but this gives me hope that some of my humble little inspirations can grow to something great.