Now we’re getting somewhere. Now we are at the heart both of the social character of art and of the essence of creativity. You should really listen to Madness and Morals in the order that we carefully devised for the songs, the order that begins with “Suspicions.” If you listen to the proper sequence of songs, you will hear the album open with the bracing chords of “Suspicions”: chang-CHANG-ka-chank-chank. And if I had heard those chords in my childhood, I would have immediately recognized them as the opening of a song that I loved. Now, I would have been mistaken because the chords are not exactly the same as those in the popular song, but they are certainly close enough to exhibit a strong family resemblance. If I had heard the opening of “Suspicions” in the tender days of youth, I would have recognized it as the opening of “Not Fade Away” by the Rolling Stones. Of course, my sophisticated reader will have already corrected my youthful self: the Rolling Stones performed a distinguished version of this, one of many great songs by Buddy Holly. But “Not Fade Away” is not by the Stones. Beyond doubt the Stones (or their handlers) acquired the use of the song by the permission—doubtless accompanied by royalty payments—of the Holly estate, or whoever owned the copyright at that point in the mid-sixties. So while I borrowed an instrumental figure, the Stones presumably paid for the use of a whole song. Several points are worth noting here. For one thing, let’s not sentimentalize copyright as protecting artists (or their heirs). Once established, copyright is a portable, not to say fungible, asset to be bought and sold subject to market conditions. And the market for copyrights can’t be as favorable today as it was in the sixties. At the risk of oversimplification, for I’m sure there are exceptions, digital media are infinitely reproducible, and hence illimitable. I’m not saying that the rights of intellectual-property holders no longer exist, but lets remember that the whole concept of intellectual property arose as a response to technological change—the invention of the printing press. Publishers (not authors) wanted to protect their businesses by legally limiting the copying of books. But the entirely appropriate legality of restricting the copying of books was bolstered by the limitations inherent in the technology, printing, that necessitated that legal innovation. Ink and paper and the laborious process of printing in those pre-industrial days severely curtailed the ability of the general public to get in on the game. So the game of publishing was played only by the small numbers who could invest in the machinery, labor, materials, and expertise required to publish books. Nowadays, anybody, and virtually everybody, possesses a personal publishing apparatus—an internet connection. And the internet works by copying remotely hosted material to people’s digital devices. I believe that law should keep step with technological change and accept the obsolescence of copyright, as least as relates to audio, visual, and other artistic (or quiz-artistic) media artifacts. Accordingly, I am willing to accept property rights in other areas such as the research and development in pharmaceuticals. I’m certainly not saying that the health-care industry is a model of social responsibility or that big pharma are good guys. But I do understand that researchers must investigate many expensive dead ends before discovering safe and effective treatments and that they must protect those investments. But it’s no use criminalizing the capabilities that technology has afforded individuals and that people will inevitably employ. To put it another way, copyright in the age of the printing press protected publishers from other publishers, not from the public. Artists occupy a unique position somewhere between the media industry and media consumers. Like industry, artists have an interest in asserting “intellectual property,” but like the general public, artists do what they do by consuming media.
Which brings me to “Suspicions.” So for the CD Madness and Morals I borrowed what as a child I believed was a motif by the Rolling Stones. Only later did I learn that the Stones had in turn borrowed, or rather purchased, from Buddy Holly. But here’s what makes this case really cool: Holly’s own creation was a borrowing. A great moment in the film The Buddy Holly Story depicts Holly, a white guy from Lubbock, playing before an all-black, big-city audience, possibly at the Apollo. To reach this new (to him) audience, Holly borrows, not just any musical motif, but the signature rhythm of the great African-American rocker Bo Diddley. Of course, the event at the theatre is a dramatic embellishment, but it is true insofar as Holly’s borrowing from Bo Diddley is unmistakable, and rock music emerged from the fusion of folk music from the British Isles with the deep and sophisticated traditions of black musical culture. And here, to me, is the kicker: Bo Diddley himself did not invent the Bo Diddley beat, which is the same as the tick-tick-tick tick-tick of claves in Latin, especially Afro-Cuban, music. (You can hear the Bo Diddley beat in a fairly pure borrowing in the second guitar part (the part with tremolo) in “STF” on Madness and Morals.) Nobody would accuse Bo Diddley or Buddy Holly of lacking originality, but they both made what they made out of existing materials. And this, it seems to me, is the essence of creativity: using the shaping power of imagination to make manifest a creation, not ex nihilo, but out of the materials (which are increasingly to be found in media) of lived experience. For human beings, lived experience means social experience.
Creativity involves the interaction of the artist’s subjective, imaginative world with the objective and historically contingent world of culture and society. Art displays its social character in the moment of an artwork’s creation. But it would be a mistake to overemphasize the genesis of art at the expense of the reception of it. A great definition I once heard—it might have come from Charley Parker—of the artistic enterprise is, “the quest for significant form.” Certainly the artist in this definition plays the questing role. But “significant form”—significant for whom? A work that never manifests itself cannot, in my opinion, be called significant. History offers many examples of artists who either failed or chose not to present their works to the world. Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting during his lifetime, and Franz Kafka commanded that his fiction be destroyed upon his tragically early death. Fortunately, Kafka’s executor disobeyed the writer’s dying wish. And the public woke up, after Van Gogh;s death, to that artist’s excellence—scandalously, considering the prices that his paintings now fetch.
Art is social through and through, and it is the purest sentimentality to romanticize the unknown artistic genius toiling alone is his garret. Art originates in social relations, if only of living artists with the dead. More importantly (IMHO, always), art achieves significance in (and only in) its reception by society. Inevitably, potentially great works will be lost because never discovered. But the artist (in another swipe at copyright law) is concerned with making significance manifest. Certainly the artist deserves recognition, but copyright law is not, and was never, concerned with giving the author his due. With only mild simplification, one could summarize the social character of art as drawing upon tradition in order to return to tradition. Paradoxically, art cannot merely repeat tradition but must to some extent break with tradition in order to stand out, to stand independently, and to achieve significance. The successful artwork thus achieves a complex balance of centripetal, traditional forces and centrifugal, creative forces.
I am not so immodest as to wish to assess the achievement of my little rock band. I know that we poured great creative energy and many hours of work into Madness and Morals. I don’t know whether “Suspicions” is a great song; it certainly sounds good to me. And as the opener to the album, I believe it does exemplify where Louder Than Dirt is coming from. “Suspicions” is probably the CD’s most “traditional” song. But then, everything we do aims to stand atop a tradition. Louder Than Dirt as a group puts forward a classical romanticism, romantic because led by the imagination and classical because elevated by tradition.
“Suspicions” more than any other song on the album has the classic guitar-and-drums sound; Joseph and I pretty consciously thought: Keith Richards and Charlie Watts. So I used a Telecaster Custom (humbucker+single-coil) in vastapol (open-G) tuning and a capo on the second fret. Joseph made the most outrageous snare stroke I think I’ve ever heard for the song’s opening. We pretty much just conquer the song, he and I. I also want to put a good word in for the background vocals. I’m pretty proud that we do all the vocal and instrumental arranging ourselves and don’t outsource that task like some bands do. Admittedly Lord Erudite makes musical suggestions, buts it’s always a matter of a slight change, usually one of augmentation. For example, in “Pretty Fire” Julian plays a really nice figure of parallel thirds way up high on the bass. Lord E had Julian change one harmony note to make the figure match up a little more sweetly with the chord changes. So we work pretty independently in the orchestration, even if we employ very occasionally some expert assistance. But in a significant departure from our usual way of working, the background vocals in “Suspicions” were arranged in their totality by an immensely talented young musician named Lydia Kelley (better known as Lydia Romero of the Romero Sisters). Lydia has sung bg vox on some of our tunes since before Oily Little Rainbows (of early 2011). On Madness and Morals she does bgv on “Bacteria” and “Cigarette.” When I brought her in to do the “Suspicions” session, she came up with a part that was better than the one I had written, so, good on you, Lydia. The “guitar” on the right-hand channel is Adam’s electric piano—I don’t know if I’m happy or sad about that. We were going for a guitarry sound on that song, and Adam played a part that was perfectly guitar-sounding. And Lord Erudite, in his wickedness, mixed it in like a guitar. So people who don’t read this post will just think that I threw in another guitar part, whereas in fact, Adam is just that good on keyboard. So many traditional elements in this song, the lyrics, the harmonica, the relentless backbeat. But I think it’s pretty fresh and in any case a great opener for the record.
So here’s what I really want to say: every artist mines the past, but if the primary ingredient isn’t imagination, the artwork will be a fossil. I think the past fertilizes or (in William Wordsworth’s term) fructifies our tunes. They sound pretty fharghing good to me.