Rockin' in the New World
I wanted to write about something that may seem like a deviation from the recent series of posts about Hitler, but I promise that it will eventually all come together over me. In fact, it goes to the very heart of the matter, even though you will no doubt wonder how and why.
The other evening while on the exercise bike, I was staring ahead at my beloved CD collection, and the thought occurred to me that there is a kind of infinite gap between the truly great musician, versus those who are occasionally able to produce something great. Unfortunately, I have to limit myself to forms of music with which I am most familiar, but the same thing no doubt applies to classical music. I imagine that there is a kind of discontinuous gap between a Bach or Mozart and the rest of the field.
In other words, if we consider musical excellence, any person with an adequate aesthetic sense can hear that it is on a continuum, with some people better than others. That's weird enough, but weirder still is the fact that there are certain geniuses who are "off the scale." It's not as if they are just "better" versions of the lesser talents.
A I said, let me stick with idioms with which I am familiar. An obvious case in point is the Beatles. Something unavoidably "mystical" happened to them between the time of their failed Decca audition and the time of their first Capitol album just a few months later. The Decca executive who failed to sign the Beatles was later widely ridiculed, but he was correct in his judgment. They weren't even mediocre. There was no spark, no magic, no sense whatsoever of what they were later to become. For those with ears to hear, there is literally an infinite gap between the Decca audition and the transcendent glory of Twist and Shout, recorded just a few months later for their first Capitol album.
The same pattern holds for Ray Charles. In fact, the moment he "invented" soul music is captured in the film Ray, and it is pretty close to the truth. Up to that point, he was a quite mediocre and derivative talent, no different from hundreds of other singers. But with I Got a Woman in 1955, he suddenly found his voice and style, and the rest is history. Once again, the body of work he recorded between 1955 and 1960 is so gloriously transcendent that it defies any simple, reductionistic explanation. It is so much better than anyone else, that there is once again that infinite gap, as well as the discontinuous leap between what he was and what he became.
Same thing with Aretha Franklin. She had been recording with Columbia Records since 1960, but was nothing special. She only "became" Aretha at a particular recording session in 1967, with I Never Loved a Man. Afterwards, for the subsequent eight years or so, she was so good it was frightening. During those years she consistently reached a level of perfection that can again only be called "transcendent." I say this because it is not as if, say, we are dealing with a scale that goes from one to ten, and she kept hitting "ten" with her recordings. Rather, the whole point is that she "broke through" the scale and entered some other kind of aesthetic space. Again, it's hard to describe, but any real music lover will understand what I'm talking about -- when an artist takes you into that higher space, which is luminous, expansive, free, and clear, like a wide open sky. (Sorry for the cliche, but that's how it feels to me; it's also a kind of "electrically charged" space.)
I could go on and on. Although Van Morrison made some competent R&B during his years with Them, no one was prepared for the leap he took with the appearance of Astral Weeks in 1968. Ever since then, he's been consistently operating out of that higher space. He is not just "better" than other artists, but in a different category altogether -- again, if you have ears to hear.
Or Sinatra. Although he produced a lot of nice music in the 1940s, no one could have predicted the depth of artistry he achieved with his string of classic Capitol albums in the 1950s. Again, he is not just "better" than the competition, but in an entirely different category. No amount of practice can get you there, because it seems that an element of "grace" is involved. For just as there is obviously spiritual grace, there is also aesthetic grace. And like the spiritual kind, it "blows where it will." Why Frank Sinatra? Why John Lennon? Why John Coltrane?
Part of the answer -- but only part -- is the level of dedication and the purity of intent. Whatever else you think about Sinatra, he was so artistically driven, that he would never allow anything to compromise his vision. Occasionally circumstances forced him to record some commercial pap to throw out into the market, and you can tell in an instant that he's not into it.
Or consider the Beatles. When they were finally signed by Capitol Records in 1962, George Martin wanted them to record a piece of crap called How Do You Do It, which he thought would be a sure-fire hit to launch the band. But the boys refused, insisting that they could write something better. First of all, this attitude was completely unheard of in pop music, which was "company driven," or "producer driven," not artist driven, especially "teen music." It never even occurred to anyone that what they were doing had anything to do with "art." Rather, they were just throwing out hamburgers for hungry teens.
Now, the Beatles had been toiling away for some five years up to that point. They had no money, no prospects, no real future. And yet, something inside already made them absolutely committed to their artistic vision, even before anyone would have called it art! Nevertheless, they put their foot down and insisted on recording their own music. Of note, their producer, George Martin, hadn't signed them on the basis of what he heard in their audition tape, which was again rather mediocre. Rather, in meeting them personally, he just felt that there was some x-factor, some kind of palpable charisma that he hoped to be able to capture and cultivate. Having read a number of biographies, I think what he experienced in meeting them was "the future." It was more than charisma, but a kind of evolutionary force.
And when I say "evolutionary force," what I mean is this. As I said, there are countless artists who are able to achieve a "nine" or "ten" with a song or two, or even in a whole career. But there are other artists who break through to a different dimension, almost like explorers who discover new lands that other people can later come along and populate. In the case of the Beatles, or Bob Dylan, they opened up an entirely new aesthetic space that had only existed in potential up to that time. It was very much as if there were a "ceiling" that was kept in place by convention, and the Beatles crashed through it. Once they did, many others followed, both for better and worse.
Yes, yes, I know what you're thinking. But you cannot blame the Beatles for what others did -- and continue to do -- with that space, any more than you can blame Jesus for the Inquisition or Marconi for Air America.
Now, what does all of this have to do with Adolf Hitler? First of all, let's look at how the founders of the great religions all discovered and opened up new evolutionary spaces for mankind to explore. Are there any spaces left, or is that it? In other words, are we in a situation analogous to the closing of the American frontier in the late 19th century? Or are there other dimension to be discovered and colonized? Is mankind being held back from fulfilling its potential by custom and convention?
to be continued....
Talent is like the marksman who hits a target others can't reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target others can't see. --Schopenhauer