In July of 1846, Henry David Thoreau took a break from his two-year experiment of living in the woods to return to town, where he bumped into a tax collector who promptly had him arrested. For six years, Thoreau had refused to pay his poll tax, believing that the money was being used to perpetuate a pair of unjust acts: the institution of slavery and the Mexican-American War, an imperialist venture that threatened to spread slavery to new territory. Thoreau had been an abolitionist all his life, yet slavery persisted, and he believed it was time to do more than just vote. His experience in jail, and the speech he later gave about the experience, became one of the most influential political tracts ever written, with thinkers and activists from Tolstoy to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. citing it as central to their own efforts to combat injustice.
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“Adding the Sun” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) might be the most enigmatic poet who ever lived. Her innovative use of meter and punctuation – and above all the liveliness of her ideas, as she crashes together abstract thoughts and concrete images – astonished her nineteenth-century readers and have retained their power to delight, puzzle, confound, and enlighten us today. Who was this quiet person in Amherst, Massachusetts, and how did she come to write such unusual poems? Host Jacke Wilson celebrates Emily Dickinson and her special genius – and offers some thoughts on how we can benefit from studying different forms of genius, whether it’s John Lennon describing his childhood or Icelandic chanteuse Björk, interviewing herself.
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In 1797, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge took two grains of opium and fell into a stupor. When he awoke, he had in his head the remnants of a marvelous dream, a vivid train of images of the Chinese emperor Kubla Khan and his summer palace, Xanadu. The vision transformed itself into lines of poetry, but as he started writing, he was interrupted by a Person from Porlock, who arrived at Coleridge’s cottage on business and stayed for an hour. when Coleridge returned to his work, the vision had been lost, and the fragmentary nature of the poem Kubla Khan has haunted its admirers ever since. The resentment has centered around the bumbling Person from Porlock, whose visit remains shrouded in mystery. The scholar Jonathan Livingston Lowes put it bluntly: “If there is any man in the history of literature who should e hanged, drawn, and quartered,” he wrote, “it is the man on business from Porlock.”
Who was this Person from Porlock, and why was he knocking on the door of Coleridge’s cottage? How did Coleridge handle the interruption, and what did it mean for him and his art? And finally, what might we take from this vivid legend today?
Back to coins for this week’s randomizing method. Seven quick flips to allow the gods of genius and creativity to have their say, and…
Oh gods. Excellent choice. But are you feeling okay? Feeling droopy? Has the work of inspiring creativity gotten you down? Or are you just admiring one of John’s favorite songs? In any case, here we go with…
“I’m So Tired” (Lennon-McCartney, The White Album)
Where to begin? This is one of those songs that critics dislike but listeners don’t forget. That voice! Those words! Like so much else on The White Album, it goes straight to our brain.
I know, I know: why is this millionaire tired? He doesn’t haul bricks or drive a forklift, he doesn’t work two jobs, he’s not on the night shift. He plays music and does drugs and eats whatever he wants. Stop complaining! Continue reading →
Ugh, my big plans for the blog this year have run into some real-life snags. More posts soon, I promise!
On the other hand, I’ve been enjoying this trip through the Beatles catalog and exploring the genius and creativity behind it. So here we go with another spin of our Jacke Wilson Randomizer… the wheel spins… the marble drops into place… and…
Oh no. Really?
The End (Lennon-McCartney, Abbey Road)
(The clip is of three final songs* of Abbey Road, Golden Slumbers, Carry That Weight, and The End. This is the recommended way to listen to The End (it builds, it builds, it builds!). The End starts at 3:07 if you want to skip ahead.)
*Yes, I’m aware of the mistake-snippet Her Majesty that got tacked onto the end of Abbey Road. And no, I’m not counting it. In this post, we shall end with the proper end.The End.
Never has it been more difficult to stick to the song chosen by the gods! If I was doing this in any sort of order that made sense, The End would come last. Because, of course, it was The End for the Beatles: the final song on the final album they recorded, the majestic triumph Abbey Road. The story goes that after the bitterness of Let It Be, they agreed to close out the Beatles with a real album, a spectacular one, one with George Martin at the helm and the four of them applying their powers in a final unified way. An album by a band, not just four individual musicians working sort-of-together a la the White Album.
So Abbey Road was the end. And The End was the end of the end.
How do you cap off such a preternatural run of brilliance? For a brief period these guys owned the world. Music and inspiration flowed through them like the spirit of God flowing through four angels.
Yes, I can get carried away. But come on! Here’s a list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs, presented by Rolling Stone. Number 100 is Hello, Goodbye. Number 100! A catchy, compelling song that beat out I Am the Walrus to be the A side! (For more Walrusing, check out our last choice of the gods.) And perhaps most to the point, a song that was a number-one hit.
What other band has a song that went to number one as their 100th-greatest song? Really, you have a band in mind? Well, tell me: did they write all the songs themselves? In seven years ?
For that kind of whirlwind achievement I think you need to look across centuries. Who else is comparable? Keats? Shakespeare? Picasso? Mozart? Bach? Alexander the Great?
CLIMBING THE FINAL PEAK
So what do you do when you’ve done everything possible? For the Beatles, you top yourself, once again, with something new. That’s The End.
Oh, sure, you say. The End isn’t even the best song on the album! There’s Oh! Darling, for example, and Here Comes the Sun, and of course the Medley from Heaven, and the criminally underrated You Never Give Me Your Money (listen to this podcast episode for a brilliant and amusing defense of the song). Come Together was on this album! And Something!
Whoa. The dice tumble, the dial spins…and the gods have chosen!
Oh, ye gods. What a sense of humor you have.
A work of genius? Yes. It’s a big one this time. A landmark in weird, mindblowing creativity. In context, maybe the strangest song ever written, and yes, I’m including Revolution 9 in that calculus. I think this song is stranger.
Yes, that’s right, we’ve landed on…
“I Am The Walrus” (Magical Mystery Tour, Lennon-McCartney)
Man. This is the Beatles in full flower. In fact, it used to scare me a little, when I was ten and listening to these songs for the first time. Not just because of the drugs, although I sensed that something was going on, something that grownups had warned me against. But because it felt to me insane.
There’s a great piece in the Anthology where they talk about John going insane at Shea Stadium. (“A little bit mad,” was Ringo’s quote, I think.) Look at him in this video, especially at the end:
That look—wild, exhausted, exhilarated, sweating, grinning, tipped out of our normal world and entering into some strange manic place—I’m not sure John intended to travel to this place, but whenever he found himself there, he knew what to do. Continue reading →
Aha! This week we use the perfect randomizer: four spins of a Life board game dial. Szzzzzzzzz-tika-tika-tika…. and the gods of creativity have chosen!
NOWHERE MAN (LENNON-MCCARTNEY, RUBBER SOUL)
Oh, wow. Once again, the gods seem to have looked out for themselves. Here’s another divinely inspired song, or at least divinely delivered. More on that later.
“Nowhere Man,” from the album Rubber Soul, was written in what John later called his “fat Elvis” period, when he was unhappy, bitter, isolated, troubled, uncertain. Oh, you never knew that? You never knew he was suffering? Here’s Paul:
I think at that point, he was a bit…wondering where he was going, and to be truthful so was I. I was starting to worry about him.
As with your consultations of the I Ching, trust the gods to select the song to serve as the basis for your creative contemplation. Close eyes. Breathe deep. Open eyes. Work out elaborate system to guarantee randomness that is harder than hell to actually get right. Fill Post-Its with numbers. Throw out. Try again. Try twelve-sided die. Try twelve-sided die and six-sided die in combination. Rip Post-Its into tiny pieces. Say, “F–k you, numbers, start cooperating, this is a spiritual thing!” Finally devise system to produce one song from the Beatles catalog, chosen at random. The gods are pleased: they shall select the song. It is the Way. Move on quickly before mathematical flaws in randomness system become apparent.
Close eyes. Inhale. Exhale, whispering jai guru deva om.
Open eyes and prepare to throw dusty Tibetan coins. Realize you’ve misplaced Tibetan coins. Use two Hungarian forints and a Canadian quarter instead. Trust that it is the Way.
Produce randomly generated song.
#152 – Long, Long, Long (from the White Album)
Oh, wow! The first installment and the gods have chosen a George Harrison song! Then again, is that such a surprise? The gods look after their own.
George Harrison was of course the Quiet Beatle. And “Long, Long, Long” is the Quiet Song. Literally, it has to be the quietest song in the entire Beatles catalog. I used to struggle with this as a kid, lying in bed in the darkness in my crackerbox palace listening to the White Album. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if I were asleep or awake. The middle part of the song grows louder, and the ending rises…but for the most part the song drifted in and out of my consciousness like a quasi-dream. The song ends the album’s third side; the needle lifting from the vinyl was louder than the song.
Well, maybe that’s as it should be. The song is addressed to God, and it’s as quiet as a prayer. Not one of the chanting Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep prayers, with a little boy kneeling at the edge of his bed and shouting out what he wants and who he wants blessed. No, this is not that. This is an aching, agonizing search for meaning, full of humility and gratitude and hope. It’s the hushed cry of someone on a lifelong spiritual journey. An imploration. A humble entreaty. Supplication set to music.
It’s been a long, long, long time
How could I ever have lost you
When I loved you?
It took a long, long, long time
Now I’m so happy I found you
How I love you
So many tears I was searching
So many tears I was wasting, oh oh
Now I can see you be you
How can I ever misplace you?
How I want you
Oh, I love you
You know that I need you
Oh, I love you
Wow. Just beautiful.
The Beatles started recording the song at two thirty in the afternoon, worked through the night, and stopped at seven the next morning. There is something so right about this. It’s the long night of a soul not at rest. Or coming to rest, just before dawn.
GENIUS IN THE SHADOWS
What was it like to be George!? Imagine you’re creating something with your closest childhood friend. You’re fourteen or fifteen years old. What do you do together? Play sports? Program computers? Write plays? Okay, let’s say the two of you write plays.
You meet another kid from across town who writes plays too. The three of you write plays together. You’re having a blast. You dream that someday you’ll have a play on Broadway. Why not? Kids are allowed to dream.
You put on a play by, say, August Wilson. Maybe Tony Kushner. Wendy Wasserstein. Throw in a Shakespeare or two to impress the grownups. David Mamet for some street cred. People start coming to the plays! This is fun! The three of you take turns playing the lead parts. People around town start asking when you’re going to be putting on the latest from Suzan-Lori Parks or Tracy Letts. Well, no, you hear your friend say, we actually thought we’d write our own plays. That’s our plan.
Really? you think. Write our own plays? Wow.
And then, by the time you’re twenty, your friend, that kid you knew on the bus when the two of you were anonymous teenagers riding to school, turns out to be THE GREATEST PLAYWRIGHT EVER. Well, maybe except for THAT OTHER GUY YOU MET, who is JUST AS GOOD. And the two of them HAVE DECIDED TO SHARE CREDIT AS CO-AUTHORS OF EACH OTHER’S PLAYS. And THOSE PLAYS ARE SUDDENLY HAILED AS THE MOST POPULAR AND SUCCESSFUL AND CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED PLAYS OF ALL TIME, LEAVING YOU TO WONDER JUST WHOSE IDEA IT WAS TO HIT THE ALL-CAPS BUTTON ON THIS STRANGE CRAZY LIFE YOU’RE SUDDENLY LIVING.
So that’s your new reality: your friend is a genius, as is your other friend, and everyone in the whole world suddenly knows it. But hey, they tell you, you can still be IN our plays, we need actors after all, so we might as well use you, we have some residual loyalty toward you.. And guess what? We’ll still play parts in your cute little plays, when we have some extra time. It’s one of the great satisfactions we have, to see how much success we’ve bestowed upon you! Chin up there, old friend. You’re still one of us. Just, um, don’t forget how lucky you are, ha ha, did we say that? Well, we didn’t have to, because the newspapers are saying it for us. Boy, there are alotta talented actors around who’d love to be in our plays, wouldn’t they? I mean, if you ever decided you wanted to do something else, there would be TONS of actors who…just kidding! Chin up, chin up!
Sound crazy? It’s basically what happened to George. And here’s the thing: GEORGE WAS GREAT TOO. He had to keep up with John and Paul, first of all, which he and Ringo don’t get enough credit for. Paul and John could come strolling in with some brilliant idea for a song as if they had angels humming tunes in their ear (and who knows, maybe they did), but it’s not like they came in with full arrangements and handed out sheet music. They came in with tunes, or ideas, or vague general descriptions (John), or demanding technical specifics (Paul). Imagine if that was you in that band, asked to learn a new song, AND learn to play it in a way that meets the approval of one of two very different creative geniuses, AND come up with a solo or something of your own—something that doesn’t irritate the creative genius but manages to strengthen the song without ruining it. Oh, and of course, you can’t let it sound like anything you’ve done before, because originality is prized. In fact, you might need to do all this on an instrument you just started playing a few days ago.
How long would it take you to come up with your part? What would seem fair? A couple of months? A few weeks?
Well, what if you had a day? Or an HOUR? What if you had to do it on the spot with the tape rolling and John or Paul ASSUMING you could play it right? That was how it was for George and Ringo. And they came through.
But we don’t need to limit George’s genius to his playing, because he himself was a brilliant songwriter. I’m sure we’ll cover those in future weeks (it is the Way) but let’s just note his songs on Abbey Road (“Here Comes the Sun” and “Something”) are as good as anything else on that album. But of course, it was their last album. The Beatles broke up before they could fully harness George’s power as a songwriter. He had just turned twenty-seven.
Read that last sentence again. What have you done with your life?
THE WAY, THE WAY, THE WAY
The mysterious ending of the song was completely fortuitous. Apparently Paul hit a low note on the organ, which caused a bottle of wine sitting on a speaker to vibrate, and…well, listen to this part again. I’ve cued it up to the 2:25 mark:
That’s Paul holding the note, the wine bottle rattling, George wailing, and Ringo rolling with the tremble before George strikes a jangly chord (the minor version of the chord that starts “A Hard Day’s Night”), and Ringo caps things off with the deadening snare drum beat. The coda expresses the theme of the song: it’s the sound of searching and self-annihilation, of life and of death, of questions begetting more questions and resolution without resolution but with resignation and relief—all in one beautiful and eerie and devastating thirty-second stretch. This is where song stretches into sound, just as life stretches into suffering which stretches into understanding and peace. The Beatles didn’t plan any of this (the vibration), but they knew what they had when they heard it. You can almost sense their excitement as they recognize the gift from the sound gods (the divine tremble) and jump on board, as they did whenever the Cosmic Harmony Bus swung by their stop. The Beatles never waved the bus past to wait for the next one. They jumped on and rode as far as they could.
One more time for the tremble:
Man, these Beatles were tapped into something holy. And to think my randomization process, which was designed to allow a spiritual force to select a song from the Beatles catalog, chose THIS song first? The hair on the back of my neck is standing up.
It’s 6:21 a.m. where I am. Time to wrap this up. Something very bad could happen if I don’t finish by seven. Something will be angry. So let’s jump to…
UNLOCK YOUR INNER BEATLE!
This week, apply your creative energies to the deepest and most powerful questions of your personal spiritual journey. Don’t be afraid of exposing emotional vulnerability; recall that only through humility and honesty can you achieve your greatness. Embrace cosmic harmonies and karmic accidents.
(And when all else fails, a little triple-time boogie piano with some aching chord changes (inspired by Dylan’s Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands!) can’t hurt.)
Feel free to share this post with all your creative friends. And if you turn out to be particularly inspired by George and his Song of Search, let me know. Share your thoughts in an email or the comments. Together we can say our quiet thanks to the saintly (and much missed) George Harrison. Spiritual Quester. The Dark Horse. The Quiet One. And our genius in the shadows.
Happy Monday! Have a good creative week, everyone!
I posted this the other day for an onward and upward. I can’t stop watching the first two minutes. I so want this to be true! Bing just happened to have this neighbor, DAVID BOWIE, who just happened to drop by, and they had this exchange with some gentle music in the background. Oh sure, then they burst into song, but that’s just gravy.
This is how television used to be, people! How many Bob Hope specials did you see when you were growing up? How many Donnie and Maries?
Of course, this could also be seen as the ending of that kind of era. David Bowie’s a fish out of water – but he’s what will take us through the 70s and the 80s and to now… Soon enough the fish will swallow this pond and find a new ocean. Or something. Bing knows it too. All parents and grandparents know it. They just want to cling to their days where they can make mild jokes that they think sail over the heads of the whippersnappers. They don’t. The whippersnappers get it. They just want it to last a little longer. (Hello, Santa Exists!)
I think Stephen Colbert misses these days, too – it reminds me of his holiday specials. A little tongue in cheek on his part. But nostalgic too. Hey, it’s Christmas. All bets are off.
Quick question for everyone. What do you hear Bowie say at the 1:27 mark? What’s the sentence right before Bowie says “I was just seeing if you were paying attention” and Bing gives that funny little laugh? Let me know!
Now for some true audio (and visual) pleasure. Christmas with the Beatles! We start with John and Yoko. You’ve heard this, of course. It’s everywhere. But if you’re in the mood, take a few minutes to watch the video, which has some excellent photos and truly warms the spirit:
Next up, Sir Paul, with another much-played song (but only one month a year, so let’s revel in it!). Here’s the 80s* synth-drenched version (with some killer haircuts for he and the other Wings):
[*NOTE: Just learned this was actually from 1979. Ahead of its time!]
I might have to run a post on Linda at some point. Totally underappreciated, which is a shame.
If synths aren’t your thing, here’s the updated a capella version, where Paul’s vocals are accompanied by the talented good folks at Straight No Chaser:
John or Paul, Paul or John? Which is better? Who wins? Well…
Why choose! Here they both are…with a little help from a couple of friends:
By the way, the hell is Ringo singing that for? I’m stumped. It’s like he was handed the wrong sheet music. But it’s still great. Maybe it’s even better because of that, who knows. My boys will get a bang out of it.