I mentioned a few weeks ago that in the wake of Prince passing away, many people have begun to refer to 2016 as “the year that music died.” Taken literally, this statement is blatantly untrue— composers and musicians have been dying willy-nilly since the dawn of time, but music has persisted as the eternal flame that it is. However, I’ll clarify that the writers and bloggers who have used this phrase do not mean that music is literally dead, but that because icons such as Prince, David Bowie, Merle Haggard, and others have died this year, music has suffered a massive, perhaps irrecoverable blow. This too is false. Not only are there many present-day musical giants who released music this year (e.g. Beyonce, Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Esperanza Spalding, etc.), but there are numerous legendary musical icons from decades past still alive and performing (e.g. Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, and somehow Kieth Richards). And furthermore, Paul Simon, a national treasure at age 74, is set to release his twelfth solo studio album tomorrow.

I admit I’ve been listening to a lot of Paul Simon this past week because his music has been the perfect soundtrack to a recent heartbreak. I’m not looking for pity from anyone— I appreciate your sympathy if you lend it to me, but unfortunately it is not going to make me feel better. For the only thing that can mend a broken heart is time… and Paul Simon. With music and art, we get to redeem our shortcomings, failures, and struggles by turning them into something beautiful to look at or listen to, and Paul Simon is an undeniable master of this alchemy. From brutal honesty (“oooh spare your heart, sooner or later everything put together falls apart”), to sincere pleading (“You don’t have to lie to me, just give me some tenderness beneath your honesty”), to empowerment (“Just slip out the back Jack, make a new plan Stan, you don’t need to be coy Roy, just get yourself free”), to self-deprecation (“She looked me over and I guess she thought I was alright— alright in a sort of limited way for an off night”), Paul Simon has lyrically diagnosed every angle of romantic struggle.

He has also prescribed the cure: “Take your burdens to the Mardi Gras, let the music wash your soul.” The music is primary. It is not the words that wash our soul, it is the music. Simon certainly writes beautiful lyrics, but he knows that these would never reach our ears or move our souls were they not supported by amazing music. He even said in an interview with American Songwriter that he always writes the music before the lyrics. Above all Paul Simon is a supreme lover of music and his frequent excursions into diverse musical styles (traditional folk, blues, gospel, zydeco, South African music, synth-pop, etc…) clearly represents this fact.

Because he is an adept guitarist and brilliant singer-songwriter, Paul Simon likely would have had a wonderful musical career even if he had never chosen to collaborate with anyone. Yet a large part of his genius is in surrounding himself with musicians who are as good or better than himself. An incomplete list of his collaborators includes some of the most skilled musicians in the world: The Jessy Dixon Singers, Urubamba, Steve Gadd, Airto Moreira, Dean Parks, Phillip Glass, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and oh yeah Art Garfunkel. To listen to a Paul Simon album is quite simply to listen to good music.

Now I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that some musical artists and fans have a major problem Paul Simon. Simon has been accused of plagiarizing British folk music, not properly crediting the South African musicians he recorded with on the album Graceland, and outright stealing a song from the band Los Lobos. I am not here to argue for or against Paul Simon’s innocence in these matters. I mention these things in order to point out that I am not romanticizing Paul Simon the person— I think he, like all of us, has insecurities and demons and has not always acted in the most equitable way. No, I am here praising Paul Simon the musician. Whatever Simon’s personal flaws or misdeeds may be, they do not take away from the amazing musical gifts he has given the world. The fact is, Paul Simon has impeccable musical taste, painfully clever lyrics, brilliant collaborators, and one of the creamiest voices of all time. I can’t wait to hear what he gives us tomorrow.

For those not yet privy to it, this blog is part of a nine-month long project in which I release a blog-post and a new song every week. So below is this week’s Opus if you care to listen, and even further below are links to posts from past weeks. Enjoy!

Week 1—Nine Months of New Music

Week 2—That’s Masturbation

Week 3—Oblique Strategies

Week 4—A Conversation with the Wolfman

Week 5—Turn Off the Music

Week 6—Thoughts on Prince

Week 7—Grieving for the Afterthought (pt.1)

Week 8—Grieving for the Afterthought (pt. 2)

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 13:  RITZ CLUB  Photo of PRINCE, Prince performing on stage - Purple Rain Tour  (Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)

Let me preface this post by saying that I am not a Prince super-fan. I think he was an amazing musician, a distinguished songwriter, and a delightfully freaky performer. But truthfully I’ve only ever owned about four Prince albums (a drop in the bucket considering his massive discography), and would actively listen to them only once or twice a year. Prince’s passing has forced him into my consciousness and yours in a way that unfortunately nothing else could. Traveling from Little Rock to Eureka Springs (and back again) this past weekend, I had a blast listening to nothing but satellite radio’s Prince tribute station, and during these seven hours of Prince I thought a lot about his life, his image, his fans, and his music. I do recognize that there is seemingly no pressing need for me to throw my opinions into the endless pile of articles, blog posts, and tweets about Prince circulating through the internet, and I would not fault you if you decided to just listen to Purple Rain instead of reading this. But I feel compelled to talk about the Purple One because there are some things that need reiteration, there are some things I haven’t heard anyone else say, and there are some things that I have heard people say that I flat out disagree with. So here are seven thoughts on that peculiar and mysterious little rockstar we loved so much.

  1. While listening to the Prince tribute radio station, I heard a couple of soundbites from fans who had called in and stated that part of the reason Prince’s death is so tragic is that “there will never be that caliber of musician again” and that “musical artists today are not as good as Prince”— You’ll also see this sentiment echoing around the internet in numerous articles that claim that this 2016 is “the year that music died” (with legends like David Bowie, Merle Haggard, Glen Frey, George Martin, Maurice White, Phife Dawg, Prince and others all passing away). This is undoubtedly not true. Genius and true inspiration are certainly rare in music (as in any field), but also relatively consistent. Let’s not give up on music just because some of our favorite icons have passed away. Some people were likely making the same distressed cries about music being dead, and the loathsome state of current music back in August of 1977 after Elvis passed away, and then guess what: 8 months later Prince released his first album. Prince was a superlative talent and a true original and likely there will never be anyone else quite like him, yet it is a fallacy to think that there will not be new inspired creators to sing the songs of our time, win over our hearts, and make us party like it’s 1999.
  2. Prince was Prince’s real name. His full name was Prince Rogers Nelson. You probably know this by now—I’m not trying to insult your intelligence— I just want to point out that Prince is a really cool name. I might name my son Prince. Or maybe Duke, or Earl…
  3. I love so many Prince songs, too many to name, but there are also a great many Prince songs that I don’t love. This is not a knock against Prince, it is simply a by product of the shear volume of work that he released. Prince released 39 studio albums and he allegedly has enough work in his vault to posthumously release over 39 more. Prince incessantly experimented with new sounds and songs throughout his career, and indeed some of these experiments fell flat. Even great creative geniuses produce sub-par work some of the time—this his does not diminish their genius. Indeed it was Prince’s willingness to experiment, take risks, and fail that allowed him to not only produce hit songs, but to create era-defining sounds that will be imitated for decades to come.
  4. Prince boasted “there’s no particular sign I’m more compatible with,” but as a Gemini (born on June 7th, 1958) he was in fact generally more compatible with Sagittarius, Libra, Leo, and Aries.
  5. I don’t know what Prince’s life was really like and unless you were his close friend or family member you don’t either. What we saw was the celebrity—the image. We saw what Prince let us see, and he certainly didn’t let us see everything. By many accounts from people who knew him, Prince was a warm, genuine, and generous man, and I truly believe that he was a wonderful person. But it is important for me to also recognize that I did not know Prince the man. While most of us are mourning the loss of an icon, some are tragically mourning the loss of Prince as a friend and a family member.
  6. There are a great many things that might seem strange to you about Prince: his androgynous appearance, his genre-bending songs, his subversion of gender stereotypes, his secretive personal life, his religious sect, his many aliases, or anything else you want to name… Yet the most unusual thing about Prince is that he was incredibly famous. There are a great many people who seem weird or different (by the way if you ostracize those people, that’s your shortcoming and not theirs), but there are only a tiny handful people that that are a household name all over the world. That’s the strangest thing about Prince.
  7. The author Chuck Klosterman wrote a book called Killing Yourself to Live in which he argued and demonstrated that the best possible career move a famous musician can make is to die. It is certainly true that since his passing Prince has been the subject of innumerable news stories and sold an enormous amount of music (he reportedly sold one million songs and 231 thousand albums the day after he died). I admit that I’ve listened to more Prince songs in the past few weeks than I have in the past few years combined! We often appreciate someone more when they are no longer around— this is natural. Yet I hope that we can all recognize that we don’t have to wait until something is gone to appreciate it. Look to the living musicians, artists, writers, artists, and people in your life that you most care about; go see them in concert, write them a letter, take them to dinner, give them a hug— express your love and appreciation while they are here to receive it.

     

    For those not yet privy to it, this blog is part of a nine-month long project in which I release a blog-post and a new song every week. So below is this week’s Opus if you care to listen, and even further below are links to posts from past weeks. Enjoy!

     

    Week 1—Nine Months of New MusicWeek 2—That’s Masturbation

    Week 3—Oblique Strategies

    Week 4—A Conversation with the Wolfman

    Week 5—Turn Off the Music

OwnIDeas

Here’s your “no shit sherlock” statement of the day: the hardest part of creating something is figuring out what to do next. Sure, one or two lines of your song (or book, or poem) might come easy. Inspiration hits and you have a great idea: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror.” Ok Michael Jackson, great start, but what are you going to do now?— Oh I don’t know Lucas, perhaps I might write the most wholesomely uplifting pop song of all time! So truthfully it was Siedah Garrett and Glen Ballard who wrote that song, but you don’t know who those people are so I pretended for a second it was actually Michael who wrote it. April fools. Regardless, for those of us who are not artistic savants, fleshing out an inspiring idea is an extremely difficult process, plagued constantly by the question: what do I do next?

It’s very easy to feel blocked or puzzled during the creative process. Yet I believe that this feeling most often is the result of thinking too much. I believe that creation is an action, not a thought. Repeat: Creation is an action, not a thought. My personal favorite tool for getting out of my head and into the act of creation is called Oblique Strategies by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt.

You’ll remember Brian Eno as member of the early 70’s glam rock band Roxy Music, as a successful solo pop artist, as the most prominent pioneer of ambient music, as a producer of bands such as the Talking Heads, U2, and Devo, as the composer of the sounds for Windows 95, as an experimental visual artist, and from countless other projects and collaborations. There is a reason Eno has been so prolific and relevant throughout his decades long career. He (similar to Davids Byrne and Bowie) did not settle in to his original pop-star sound, but simply fell in love with the process of creation, leading him to diverse edges of the music and art world. His buddy Peter Schmidt is a modern artist, painter, and theoretician who met Brian Eno in the late 1960s. Together they created Oblique strategies, a deck of cards with cues and axioms that help you overcome artistic obstacles. Here is what Brian and Peter have to say about it:

(click pic to enlarge)

Explanation

Basically, if you’re working on a project and find yourself stuck, or simply desire a new approach, reach for a card and do what it says. For instance, I have no idea what I am going to write about for the rest of this blog post, so I’ll pick a couple of cards to jump-start this thing. Card 1:

GoOutside

Great idea, but I’m actually one step ahead of you Oblique Strategies. I’m sitting on Kavanaugh Boulevard outside of Starbucks sipping on a black coffee and trying to write this post. I’m writing in my classic black and white composition notebook while the Funkadelic song “Can You Get to That” (aka the greatest song ever) plays from the speaker above my head. This is a great strategy. While there are different flavors of “outside”— a quiet corner of the woods would be markedly different than this relatively simulating street corner— getting outside your stuffy old work space is certainly a good idea once in a while. Card 2:

BetterJudgement

So since I am the only person currently working on this post, I suppose I am the only person I could ask to work against my better judgement. So I guess I could tell a joke I made up— that could go over poorly. Oh yeah it’s also a Jewish joke, and I’m not Jewish— yep, this sounds like a really bad idea. Let’s do it!

Q. How far can a Jew throw a Ram’s horn?

A. Shofar

So you maybe need to say that one out loud (and know what a Shofar is) to get it. Anyway, that definitely went against my better judgement. But look at that— I squeezed like 250 words out of those two cards. I’m almost done with this blog post. Thanks Oblique Strategies!

Of course, there are many other methods that musicians and artists use to figure out what to do next. John Cage used the I-Ching, David Lynch uses transcendental meditation, and countless other artists have used a lot of drugs. Some of these methods are obviously more sustainable than others, but it is clear that there is no shame in using a little outside help to get the creative juices flowing. I chose to turn to Oblique Strategies to help me create the following song.

In fact I had a lot of help on this track beyond Oblique Strategies as well. As mentioned last week, the bass line was recorded by Bloomington, Indiana bass extraordinaire Brenton Carter during a jam session of ours— shout out to my man Noah McNair as well for laying down some slick keyboard lines that tragically went unrecorded during that session. Also the sax and flute parts were recorded by the great Matt Schatz, who, in the spirit of this blog post, was asked to draw an Oblique Strategies card for himself. His card read:

ImpliedDefinite

Thank you to Brian, Peter, Noah, Brenton, and Matt for all your help, and I hope everyone enjoys Opus 3.

This post is part of a nine month project in which I am releasing a new song and blog post every week. If you want to get caught up, here are the links to the previous entries:

Nine Months of New Music— Opus 1

That’s Masturbation— Opus 2