Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Blissful Surrender

Do you want to write songs, or do you need to write them?

If writing great songs were only as simple as wanting to do it, we'd all have dozens of them. It requires more commitment than that. If you're blown away by a song you hear or a book you read, rest assured someone needed to create it (even if it came quickly, the intense need to write was probably sustained for years). Great writers aren't really so gifted, they just have an impossible compulsion. They're "all in". The need keeps them awake when they want to sleep; it keeps them hungry when they want to be fed; it demands their attention when they want to daydream.

There are times when I catch myself looking for some point of entry like a junkie tapping on his veins. Yesterday's song is just yesterday's song-- a high that didn't last. If I had to go to dangerous alleys and midnight borders of the imagination for my fix, I probably would. There are those who see a work of art and feel a gentle glow inside. There are others who see a work of art and feel a fire in the blood to create one of their own. There's no escaping it, no letting it pass, no procrastination. It's an allurement as intoxicating as any substance known to man. When it isn't there, we ache for it. But where the need is deep, so can be the result and reward.

Whenever I'm "engaged to a song" I know there will be many drafts of the lyric. There will be moments when I want to rip out my hair because part of the melody isn't holding up. Bring it on. I fall sleep on the sofa in the den and wake up at the first light of dawn excited to begin again. Bring it on. When the song is finished there's a feeling of temporary wholeness I can't find in any other pursuit. Yes, only to begin again...but joyously in spite of it all.

You'll recognize your need if you have one. Let your creative hours be sacrosanct and uncompromised. Put life on hold. Throw caution to the wind (insert any more cliches you can think of here).

As I lay awake last night lamenting another day in which I worked for ten hours and produced not a single creative thing, I thought of all the contented folk who didn't create anything either, and who slept soundly with a pleasant dream. I wanted to feel contentment, rest, peace. I told myself that most words are written on sand. Most melodies die with the singer. Most paintings darken with the patina of the world's grit and grime. Why make anything at all?

I believe we make things because we are the pressure valve of the ultimate making of things. Through us escapes the blow-off of creative forces no one can imagine. That is our role in the big picture. There's really no self-importance in a creative act when you understand the mysterious and uncontrollable nature of it. It's all for the sake of an elemental energy in the pipeline that chooses your particular point of exit. Creative needs are like geysers in Yellowstone; warm salty mud being blown out of the way so the earth can keep its crust intact for another day. The earth doesn't respect geysers, it simply uses them. I am used, you are used; we're The Need incarnate and we'll never fully understand the unseen forces below the surface. There's no remedy for it but a blissful surrender.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Music Circle

Falling in love with anything is a growth process; something that requires a little pondering and engagement; something we invest ourselves in. Remember when LPs (if you are under 30, mea culpa) didn’t come at us like bullets from an automatic weapon? We really didn’t have hundreds of new releases to choose from because there were no successful DIY-ers in those days. If David Geffin or Ahmet Ertegun or John Hammond didn’t sign the artist, we knew it was because they weren’t any good. We had a little faith in the taste makers back then. No one complained about a Rolling Stone issue, or a radio playlist because there was something for everyone.

Back in that misty era it was a big event when the Allman Brothers or Gordon Lightfoot or Stevie Wonder or Joni or Jackson released a new record. When Dylan's new records came out, time almost stopped. We savored those sweet moments of listening knowing it would be a long time before we felt like that again. We took some time to fall in love with the music, and sometimes it was a permanent affair. Sitting in the dark, focusing on the music, there was a chance-- just a chance-- the artist had something important to say. Listening could be intimate and fascinating. Most of the lyrics these days aren’t really meant for our full attention. We have no prophets and few real communicators.

Lately I find myself listening to more, less. I might enjoy a new CD once and never come back to it. Who has time to fall in love with music anymore? I know I’ve liked a few CDs enough to put them in my favorite stack. But then I’m swept downstream so rapidly I can barely recall the artist's name. I want that to change. Yeah, my internal clocks are winding down and everything outside moves so fast I can’t keep up... but really, there’s just too much distraction and very little of it is worthwhile. We lack time for appreciation.

I took a high school elective once called Music Appreciation. We just sat in class and listened, usually to a classical piece by a dead Austrian composer, or an Aaron Copeland treatment of a beautiful folk song. It was a relaxing class. I wonder if they still offer it?

Music is the eternal soundtrack for life, but it’s no longer a focal point of it. The music plays ever so agreeably in the background as we jog, or cook, or plan our days. We catch ourselves every once in a while thinking, “nice tune” and maybe we hum a few bars later on as we stand in line at Starbucks. But we aren’t engaged, really absorbed in listening like we were when there was little else to do. Ah, those dull, ancient times.

I've seen my daughter listen to music through one ear of her headphones, IM her friends, talk on the cell phone at her other ear, and read Harry Potter simultaneously. I can handle a stick of gum and the laundry at the same time. But I asked her once if she ever got together with her friends just to listen to music like we did in the old days. "Well, only if we're going to a concert, but then we like to dance and take stupid pictures with our phones and party..." Not what I was thinking at all.

But now my daughter loves the music circles that my old-head buddies and I still have at the house on occasion. We pick and sing till the wee hours, and it's warm and wonderful. She brings her close friends with her to these gatherings, telling them, "You're gonna LOVE this! This is SO cool!"

I guess I’m hopelessly attached to the way it was. I miss the communal experiences that brought us together. I miss the artists that understood music’s power to hold us in a trance, to break down barriers and inhibitions, to teach us more about us. It's all wallpaper now. There’s 100,000 new tracks waiting for us out there. We can redecorate our profiles in a heartbeat. There's no need for the music circle.

Photo: Clara Bien

this posting copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Real Game

I was nine years old sitting in the first base bleachers at ramshackle old Connie Mack Stadium when the Cardinals visited in the summer of 63. Stan the Man was a few months short of retirement, but the aura of competition was still on him. His team was in a pennant race that year which they ultimately lost to the Dodgers. Many people have written about Musial, but the telling fact is that here was a guy who hit .330 and nearly won the League batting title at the age of 42, and it was just another season for him (his lifetime batting average was an astounding .331). He always played as if his life depended on today’s game, and he did it without performance enhancers.

Like many, I grew up on the lessons learned from sports competition. Between watching the games at Connie Mack, my father managed the Hilltop Lions and the Bluejays, the little league teams on which I played for most of my childhood and adolescent summers. Dad knew when to make us fight and when to ease off and let us be kids. That’s how dads used to raise boys. Competition wasn’t a grueling drill designed to land a seven figure sports contract. The Lions and Bluejays lost a lot of games, but we never felt like losers. Dad wouldn’t allow it. That was the Real Game, where I learned that putting heart into something has its own rewards.

If the heart has gone out of much of our culture, it’s because we believe our rewards must be in the form of tangible things, unrealistic bonuses, easy stock dividends, big contracts or little mail-in rebates. We need to see the carrot on the stick. We're bombarded with promises of payoffs, all of them requiring minimal effort, and none of them ennobling to the spirit of competition.

Our real competition lies within. The contest is against our own apathy, mediocrity and sloth. There is a pill for every normal and abnormal craving, but no pill to make you put your heart into the game. That you must do alone. What we get for putting heart into the game is sometimes just heartache, but oh those sweet returns when it all clicks—there’s nothing like it.

How much heart can we muster? How many knock downs can we rise from? How good can we become at what we do—will we lay it on the line?

Competition is a funny thing. If you give someone a fair chance to compete with heart, there’s nothing so enriching. Corrupt the spirit of competition and suddenly it gets ugly and debases everything it touches. When greed and steroids infected baseball, it declined. When greed and artificial enhancers like pitch tuners and pre-recorded concert tracks infected music, it, too, declined. Technology and its profiteers in both cases. The heart went out of it. The rest of our culture follows suit.

Competition and greed are almost synonymous in America these days, nearly indistinguishable. But what has been won if money can buy the victory? What have you proven if payola got you to the top; if technology fools your audience into thinking you have more talent than you do; if steroids made you hit 70 home runs; if your wealth came at the expense and ruin of the lives of others? Your victory is hollow and we all know it.

Heart and competition on the level playing field will survive in places where the greed and corruption cannot go. The true athlete won’t blow his shot at the Olympics by using banned substances, he’ll just compete the old fashioned way. The true musical talent won’t need artificial things to enhance her performances on American Idol, she’ll just show us her heart underneath that dowdy dress. The true champion will be like my friend Vince who has beaten cancer four times and still has his sense of humor and loves to sing. These are the only true winners. The victory must be real, not concocted.

When I walk away from this game I want it to feel just like it did back on that sunlit diamond. I was only a winner if I gave it my best no matter what the score board said. To you who say winning is everything and losing is just losing, I say if we play the Real Game with heart there’s no shame in losing at all. The only shame comes from winning without honor.

Listen to "The Real Game" (written by Don Schlitz and Craig Bickhardt)

This posting copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt

Thursday, July 9, 2009

All The Spells

The instinct is a mystery. We can't justify it, can't explain it, or defend it. We just feel it. A song pulls us into itself before we have time to over-analyze what we’re doing. It’s the mysticism of songs that compels us to search for new ones. We discover something that reflects the beauty of the world as it appears through our idealism and we call it a song. The whole universe would sing it, every star in the night, if only it were perfect.

We second guess the instinct. We tinker with the spontaneous “unseen logic” (as Emerson refers to it); those will-o-the-wisps of connection too serendipitous to be planned and too recent to be mapped. In the process of seeking critical approval, seeking the elusive cut, we lose something. The logic has become visible and the mystery goes out. It's so subtle it would be invisible under a microscope.

Why do you love your favorite songs? Search in vain for the definitive reason; you can't name it, can't point to it, can’t analyze it, you just feel it.

If pushed for a critique some would say the Beatles song "Yesterday" needed more attitude and imagery in the lyric. I can imagine being a young McCartney trying to sell that tune in Nashville today. Good luck, Pauly. The song defies this kind of criticism because we feel the tug of the soul when we hear it. Do you trust that mysterious instinct, that soul-tug, or do you trust the ever-logical criticism?

Like the illusion that the earth stands still as the heavens move around it, “right” is sometimes just a way of seeing something that could easily be proved wrong eventually. If a song sends a shiver down your spine, you don’t need to ask for someone else’s opinion of the shiver or the shape of your spine. Better to ask why there’s no shiver produced by the other songs. And that’s probably a simple question to answer: because there’s no mystery in them. They are laid out like assembly directions. Welcome to contemporary hit radio...

I turned a friend of mine onto one of my favorite songwriters this week, Bruce Cockburn (last name rhymes with "slow turn"). I discovered Bruce back in high school when a copy of his first LP fell into my hands out of a discarded radio library. Such luck rarely repeats. He has a lot of wonderful songs, but there's one in particular I love called “Pacing the Cage”. It has a verse in it that could be the creed of every serious songwriter:

I never knew what you all wanted
So I gave you everything
All that I could pillage
All the spells that I could sing

We are in the advantageous position of offering something, everything that we are in song. We can weave spells. The spell is part of the mystery; the incantations of the spirit. I’m skeptical of things that appear "right" when they ought to appear mysterious. I’d rather a song lift me off the earth than grasp at my ankles.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt