Remember that famous quote, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”? Stress. Limits. Eno. Deadpool. Frankenstein. Marie Kondo.
Roger CortonLast time you said you had various strategies for practicing creativity. Improving creativity the same way you practice scales. OK. Some specifics, please?
JCHThe word ‘strategies’ is something I ripped off from Brian Eno. He had this whole system of things to do to be ‘creative’. There were playing cards.
that’s why I’m such a believer in Crisis. Pain. Suffering. I know it sounds creepy, but these are often the biggest catalysts for profound change. Or failing that, at least a burst of creativity. So much of the reason we don’t improve is because we do things the same way over and over. And it seems like, for most of us, there is something about something ‘breaking’ that unleashes the mutant gene
RCI remember that. When you were stuck, you were supposed to throw down a card from the deck
JCHLike The Magic Eight Ball
RCRight! And it would suggest something to try.
JCHI don’t even remember what the suggestions were. It was just that he believed in throwing randomness or chaos into the mix to…
RCLike The Joker in The Dark Knight. The part where he’s wearing a nurse’s outfit.
JCHVery fetching. This is something that classical composers have been futzing with for one hundred years now. Various ways to take an artist down different paths. You know–get you out of your familiar patterns. I’d suggest that most of art in the twentieth century was about trying to escape those doldrums using all manner of artificial contrivances. I don’t want to get too expansive today…
RCThat’s different right there (laughs).
JCHSo let’s go with one real life (cough) ‘opportunity’. So this week I lost all my email.
RCWhat does that mean?
JCHIt means literally every email I’ve had since about 1998. Nothing. No attachments. No phone numbers. No addresses. Nothing. Anyone who hasn’t contacted me in the past thirty days? They no longer exist. Wives. Kids. Friends. Banking. Purchases. Zip. I wouldn’t be able to contact you if we hadn’t emailed in the past week. It’s not like I have your email addy committed to memory.
RCWow. You don’t have backups? It isn’t ‘in the cloud’?
JCHWell, I don’t wanna get into the details now. That’s not the point I’m trying to get across. Let’s assume that the answer is ‘no’ and that I have this unique ‘opportunity’.
RCOK, let’s assume that. So what is the ‘opportunity’? Is this one of those Hallmark TV Specials? Now that you’ve lost everything, you realize what really matters in life? Friends. Family. Your dog.
JCHNo. No. And no. I’m just thinking in terms of creativity. There are two things. First of all, anything stressful like this can be a tremendous trigger for good musical ideas. I’ve said it many times and it seems like a joke, but my experience is that it’s exactly like the old country song. When yer dog dies, yer woman leaves, yer truck breaks down? That’s the time to write a song!
RC(singing) “Oh my email, she’s gone. Gone. Gone!” I’m not seeing the commercial potential.
JCHOh ye of little faith. I’m not sure the circumstances matter all that much. I mean, they may if there is something really poetic…
RC“…She left me at the diner where we first met!”
JCHRight. But I maintain that it’s just the intensity of emotion that matters. If you catch it at just the right moment, the anger, panic, frustration, humiliation, fear, whatehhhver triggers something. It’s like in all those comic books where the guy has that latent superpower but it takes the car accident or getting thrown off a building to have the shit come out. He can’t access it without that stress.
RCDeadpool can’t become a ‘mutant’ without being tortured.
JCHExactly. Sometimes you can’t fake it. It has to be a real stressor.
RCWell even if you’re right, I don’t think too many people want to go there just to write a song.
JCHPoint taken. But regardless, you’ll note how much great art gets created in a climate of suffering. People will say, “Oh that guy was just depressed.” But that’s wishful thinking. It’s pleasant to think that art doesn’t need that mutant push. But I think it might. Anyhoo, my point is that when you have a crisis, when little Timmy gets a concussion playing football or yer wife makes you sleep on the couch? PICK UP YER GUITAR. Seriously. The first step is that when something bad happens: REMEMBER TO PICK UP YER GUITAR. Trust me. That’s when the good ideas come.
RCApart from actually remembering to do that, I think many of us, including myself, would resist that idea. We just don’t like the idea. Music is supposed to be fun and relaxing. You’re suggesting inviting suffering into a part of my world that is meant to be happy.
JCHLike I’ve said so many times, almost none of my students have actually done what I ask them to do. Now you’re starting to get it.
RCWell, if you’re asking me to suffer? Dude! OK, so is there anything you can suggest that doesn’t involve ‘suffering’?
JCHSure. And this gets back to Jack White and the opening to It Might Get Loud.
RCWhere he literally makes a guitar out of a block of wood.
JCHRight. I don’t know how many blues guys have an origin story like that. You know, their first bass was like a washing tub and an old inner tube.
RCBut isn’t that also about ‘suffering’?
JCHNo. You gotta look at it as about doing something different. It’s about making do. I would suggest that, to some degree, their style develops out of that original instrument. That sound. Those so-called ‘limitations’ that force them to sound different.
RCSo you’re saying that if they had been given a normal instrument for Christmas…
JCHMaybe no greatness. Goodness, but not greatness.
RCSo I should give my child a cigar box and a broomstick for Christmas and say, “This is your guitar. Someday you’ll thank me.”
JCHNo. But I like the way your mind works. What I am saying is that if you have stuff that works normally, you tend to make music that is, well, ‘normal’. If you have something…
JCHEXACTLY! You get Frankenstein. And Frankenstein is way more interesting than if the guy comes off the operating table all normal, gives Herr Doktor a hearty handshake and then goes off and gets a job in some marketing department.
RCI’m not seeing the practical strategy here.
JCHOK another real world example. My guitar amp is flaking out.
RCJesus, you really are having a bad run of luck.
JCHWell this is just normal maintenance. I mean, you gotta change the tubes once every couple of decades (laughs). Anyhoo, the tubes that drive the reverb are dying. So not only does the reverb not work, but it also makes this low level whooshing hum, kinda like a vacuum cleaner. And the great part? It’s almost a perfect A Natural.
JCHHaven’t you ever sung along with the vacuum cleaner? Go watch that movie “The Triplets Of Belleville”. Dude, there’s a whole world that opens up when you’ve got an instant heavy metal drone to play along with.
RCSo you’re turning something broken into an opportunity. I’m not sure that is such a revolutionary idea.
JCHI never said that any of this is ‘revolutionary’. I said that none of my students ever do this stuff. They hear and see ideas like this in movies and books and so on, but they never actually try it themselves. I’m suggesting that when something ‘bad’ happens? STOP and try to think if there is something interesting to be done with it. Take the time to learn from it. Then go get yer amp fixed (laughs.)
RCPoint taken. So…
JCHWait I forgot the other thing about reverb. I’ve had a number of students who simply cannot live without reverb. It’s just a part of their ‘sound’ to have that sustain. The great thing for someone like that in having the reverb break is that, again, it forces you to see what you can do. The drone thing may seem esoteric, but there are a LOT of styles that demand a dry sound. But if yer in love with that ‘verb, you probably don’t work on them.
RCSo bad things force people to be creative.
JCHRight. I call it “Dad’s Heart Attack Scrooge Strategy”. My dad had like four heart attacks. He smoked those Lucky Strikes.
JCHLSMFT, baby. Lots of guys have that heart attack and it puts THE FEAR OF GOD into ’em. They’ve been told for years to change. But they won’t listen. It takes that crisis to get people to change their behaviour. That’s the Scrooge trope. He has to have the shit scared out of him not once, not twice, but THREE times to get the message. And that was me dad. He had to have like three heart attacks. And then he became one of those annoying old guys who’s always lecturing people about proper diet and exercise.
RCNothing worse than an ex-smoker who gets religion.
JCHYou know it. But that’s why I’m such a believer in Crisis. Pain. Suffering. I know it sounds creepy, but these are often the biggest catalysts for profound change. Or failing that, at least a burst of creativity. So much of the reason we don’t improve is because we do things the same way over and over. And it seems like, for most of us, there is something about something ‘breaking’ that unleashes the mutant gene.
RCYou’re scaring me. It sounds like you’re embracing crisis.
JCHYou’re not the first person to suggest that! (laughs) But I’m doing no such thing. All I’m saying is that these moments in life where something goes wrong are like the $1,000 truffles that grow out of a great steaming pile of shit. You have to be aware of that and be willing to dive in deep, Boy-o, when it happens, instead of doing what most of us do and…
RCAnd try to steer clear of the shit as much as possible!
JCHOf course. But when it’s there. You can’t waste the opportunity. Almost every bad situation I’ve been in has afforded me a tremendous opportunity to improve my playing or write a piece of music I never would’ve thought of otherwise.
RCOR, I can just use one of Brian Eno’s cards (laughs). Everything you’ve been saying seems to be about finding a way to do things differently. What I find tough to take is the reliance on bad things to make it happen.
JCHThat is my most profound belief. I don’t court disaster. Or… at least I hope I don’t. But when it comes? You have to recognize that there is likely some silver lining in there.
RCI was wondering if you’d use the ‘silver lining’ metaphor.
JCHScrooge. Truffles. Silver lining. Yeah, they are stacking up. I avoided lemons and lemonade, But! I just thought of a great one involving Tornadoes.
RCMaybe save it for another time?
JCHNo this is great. No twister. Dorothy doesn’t get bonked on the head.
RCYeah, yeah. And she never gets to Oz. I get it. I’m not getting a concussion just to write a song.
JCHSuit yourself (laughs). But it just occurred to me to mention that I’m doing Twister in the next show.
RCNice tie in.
JCHWhy, thank you. And all kidding aside, I encourage anyone who wants to stay in touch with me to send me a note. For now at least, my address book is surprisingly empty (laughs).
RCThat must feel weird?
JCHOddly enough, it feels kinda liberating. I actually had just finished reading that Marie Kondo book.
JCHYou don’t know about “The Magic Art Of Tidying Up”? Dude, you need to watch more Ellen. Or Oprah. Or NPR. Or something. Anyhoo, she has this totally ruthless idea about eliminating ‘clutter’ from your life. Very Zen. Like if you haven’t looked at a book in the past year? THROW IT OUT! Supposedly, your body will ‘jump for joy’ when you do this sort of thing.
RCYeah, I can’t imagine how I could’ve missed that. (laughs). It sounds brutal.
JCHIndeed. But I gotta admit: it really is kinda (cough) ‘liberating’. If I don’t get this email deal sorted out, some day I may cry about it, but…
JCHNot today. It took this ‘crisis’ to prove her point. So far, it hasn’t affected me materially at all. In fact, I’m so excited, I’m thinking about…