Posted Oct 6, 2010
Let’s begin this maiden voyage with two important questions. What is Death, and what is Art? It’s important to think about these at the outset because deciding upon a particular notion of what exactly Art is can help us as we strive to make our own.
Now to the Death part. We have no idea what Death is. A boundary line? The final curtain? The Great Unplugging? A gauzy film between this life and the next? Whatever Death is exactly, our reaction to it is the single largest motivator in most of our lives. We run from it, we run towards it, but most of all we struggle to make sense of the fact that each of us is going to die one day. In the meantime, however, we make Art to help us explain Death.
During World War II, the British set up a special intelligence branch in a place felicitously called Bletchley Park. The job of people at Bletchley was to break German code. The code was created by rotor machines known as “Enigma” machines. The breaking of the code, and the subsequent information deciphered (which was known by the British as “Ultra”) gave rise to the invention of the modern computer.
To strain a metaphor to breaking, Death is the enigma and Art is the engine we build to decipher it. Each of us makes Art as a way to understand human problems (Love, War, God, Death, Sandwiches) of great complexity. While we go about our day-to-day lives we are constantly feeding information into the engines we create for ourselves, gaining insight and slowly solving the enigma. Art is one such engine.
Go to a museum and look at the different renderings of the afterlife. Each envisioning is an engine built by an artist to understand what will happen after we die. I’d like to throw in here that I believe Religion and Science are the same engine as Art, just going under different names, but that’s probably for another time.
Now, to get to songs. A song is an ephemeral little ribbon whipping around in the wind. It has no physical weight and is present only in memory or the air that carries it. But to me, growing up, a song was everything. I remember the long drives we would take to visit my relatives in Oregon. My brother and I would sit in the backseat, and after it got dark and the car swept along the edges of the Columbia River gorge, I would sing to myself. Usually it was the Oak Ridge Boys or Brian Bowers. It was “Sergeant Pepper’s” on occasion, and at other times it was “Graceland,” start to finish. I knew all the words. We all did. Later, as I was touring by myself, driving long hours into uncertain circumstances, I would sing other songs to myself. For instance, I made a ritual of singing Leonard Cohen’s “The Future” each time I would drive my little red Chevy Cavalier, Mitchell, into Manhattan. Something about the drama of that song, verging on humor, made New York seem less frightening to me. On my first tour with Joan Baez, when I was learning how to fall asleep on a moving tour bus, I would sing (very quietly) Gillian Welch’s “I Dream a Highway” to myself until I fell asleep.
These songs were engines that helped me solve problems. Songs are ideas whose phrases are made memorable by rhyme and melody. They are the most portable little problem solvers I know of, and as humans we’ve fed every single experience we’ve ever had into them in order to try and make sense of our lives.
That’s what you’re doing when you write a song, when you sing a song, when you listen obsessively to a song over and over again. You’re solving problems. Don’t get me wrong here, though. I’m not suggesting that any of us are on Missions from God every time we sit down at a piano or pick up a pen. It doesn’t have to feel heavy. After all, songs are entertainment. Still, they are engines for understanding life, and that’s something we can always use a little more of, right?
So why all this talk of Death and engines? Isn’t this a blog on making a life in music? Yes. But at the outset, I think it is extremely important to have a view of what you do that is foundational. After all, the music business is not one known for its solid ground. Hell, Life is not known for being all that good at solid ground. As you begin to try to make a living in music, you need to fix your eyes on what is beyond all the little stuff you’re going to have to go through. In choosing to make a life in music, you are choosing to be a part of something grand. You are making, helping to make, or presenting engines of human understanding for yourself and others that attempt to make sense of the big questions. Whether the song is serious or not, an hour long or a few seconds, it may one day help you or someone else to understand a tiny piece of the enigma around us. Most of the real truths in life I’ve gotten from other people’s songs. I carry them around in my head. They make me happy because they give me a way to understand my own experiences.
A lot of what I’m going to go into in further installments has to do with topics that won’t be anywhere near so heady. There’s always a lot to do, and it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees sometimes. But just remember, as we head into the woods, that songs are extremely important. By singing them, by writing them, by appreciating them, we are solving for ourselves problems of the greatest significance to our own lives and happiness, and occasionally the lives and happiness of others. The advice that follows stems directly from this belief.
The next installment will be on how you devise your goals. It’s fun and there are cool tricks. I’m calling it “First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlinnnnnnnnn!”