Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Is really special creativity only the provenance of youth?

I was away last week and totally oblivious to what day it happened to be, hence one of my rare non-appearances on Type M. My apologies for that. Quite frankly, it’s embarrassing when that happens, but, well, it happens. The world continued to turn. Life as we know it didn’t suffer. And I’m back again this week.

While away, I began reading an account of something that’s always interested me intensely: the soul music of the 1960s that came out of Memphis, Tennessee on the Stax Record label. Yeah, it’s an arcane subject, and most of you reading this have no idea what I am referring to, but that’s okay. It’s not what this weeks post is truly about. It just provides the jumping off point. If you are interested, the book is called Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records by Rob Bowman.

Stax Records was an anomaly in its time. First and foremost, it was integrated. Its studio musicians, the ones who cranked out all those classic soul tunes by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, etc. got their jobs because of their musicianship. Skin colour didn’t enter into it and that was very rare, especially in the South. This was during a time when the racial turmoil that griped the US was at its height. Once through the doors of Stax, racial differences didn’t matter. Musicianship did.

What amazes me, though, is the incredible musical creativity that existed when those band members got together. Day after day, they crafted astonishing arrangements and recorded literally hundreds of songs. With no written out musical arrangements, just feeling their way through until they were satisfied, this group of young men (mostly) cranked out more era-defining music than nearly anyone else. They’d just cut one song and move on to the next one. Their output is nothing short of brilliant. Yes, it all had a definite “Stax sound”, but the songs never sounded as if they’d come out of a cookie cutter. Each one was its own entity and in the amount that was produced, it’s truly astonishing. (I can provide a listening guide if anyone is interested.)

At roughly the same time, The Beatles were assembling their awesome catalog of era-defining songs. Their output is even more astonishing in the too brief time they flourished as a group.

Now to the crux of the matter. In what way are these two musical ensembles most similar? They all did their best work while rather young and finding their way as musicians. All were playing well “over their heads”.

In much the same way as athletes, pop musicians generally do their best work in their early years. It’s not the same in jazz or classical music, but these artists did do their best “learning” when in their teens and twenties. After that, it’s polish and experience that provides the finishing touches to what they do best and it comes mostly with years and experience.

This is not to say that pop musicians don’t continue to improve in mastering their instrumental ability. But in terms of creativity in making original music, nothing seems to beat those early years for output. None of the members of the Stax house band, as they grew older, created anything near the volume of superb and astonishing music. To be fair, they didn’t have the same chance once things began falling apart at Stax, where they worked five days a week. They weren’t recording at anywhere near the same frenetic pace. So too with The Beatles. Once they split up, their individual shortcomings were exposed simply by the fact they were working alone. Both ensembles were highly collaborative/synergistic. Everyone threw ideas into the creative pot. Solutions were tried and either worked or were found wanting. When the latter was the case, someone else would generally step forward with a different idea. The total was indeed proven to be greater than sum of its parts.

Writers, by definition, work alone. Though there are exceptions, it’s rare to find more than one person crafting the words. Yes, we can join critiquing groups or show our work to trusted allies while we’re still in the “development stages” of our writing, but that’s not really the same thing. In my own small way, I have experienced the (almost) rapture of creating something within a group. It is indeed a heady feeling. Often, it can be a harsh crucible as ideas are thrown out, reshaped, discussed and discarded by the group as a whole, but when the dust clears and you can clearly see the fruits of your labours, it is quite wonderful.

Even though I now write with words rather than sounds most of the time, something is lost. My youth is long since behind me, and with that went youthful energy levels. If I stayed up and worked all night simply because I couldn’t bear turning off the creative tap (as I often did in my youth), I would suffer physically for days, regardless of artistic elation. So that’s no longer on the cards. But I’m also working alone, there’s no one else’s creative energy to feed off of.

I believe I’m still creative in my dotage, but the fire burns nowhere as hot as it once did when I was in my teens and twenties. Shall I say that it appears to be more “rationed” than in the past? And it is nowhere near as fecund. Seldom now do ideas pour out faster than I can hope to catch and write everything down.

The saying is, “Youth is wasted on the young.” We older farts often add, “I wish I knew then what I know now.” Both are sad statements at their hearts, but no less true for being somewhat flippant.

I completely believe in both thing – but can’t do a thing about it.


Eileen Goudge said...

Great post, Rick. My thoughts exactly. Throw chiropractic issues into the mix, from sitting at a computer for hours on end, year after year, and the rationed time grows ever smaller. Still, when you think of some of the great works produced by over-sixty authors, it gives one hope. And hey, look at Clint Eastwood, in his eighties and riding high on his popular and critical success with "American Sniper."

Rick Blechta said...

You're right about being able to produce great things at a later age, but for sheer genius and prodigious output, it would have to go to the young pups nearly every time — certainly in music.