What follows is the first part of a rather long, non-fiction, semi-autobiographical essay that is, in part, an attempt to explain why I write what I do and how I got to where I am right now.
I do have more real fiction on the way; there’s one piece in particular that’s shaping up nicely, but I’m enjoying working on it so much that I don’t want to rush it. I’ll post it in full here when it’s done, but in the meantime, here’s the first few lines:
Smoke, curling and coating. Ashes of mourning, dawning embers, and smoke, enfolding loss and birth.
And now, to today’s main event…
Part 1 – Wherein the author explains why the story is as important to him as the Story
I’ve mentioned this to most of my friends, and it’s something that becomes abundantly clear after spending a few minutes touring my library or music collection: I’m more interested in creative depth than breadth. While I have hundreds of books in my library (a number that would be in the thousands were it not for fiscal and spatial limitations), and hundreds of GBs of music on my computer, the actual number of writers/musicians is fairly small: a few dozen on the shelves, and a few hundred on the disc.
What I tend to do when I’m looking for something new is to cast my net very wide, and when I find something that catches my attention, I dive deep on it. And if what I’m exploring continues to hold my interest—something that’s usually apparent fairly soon—then I become a completist, and try to find everything I can about the artist: not just their entire body of work, but where they came from, what they did, and how that became the work I enjoy.
I don’t think it’s necessary to know all the biographical details about an artist to enjoy their work. And sometimes, it can even be a detriment…in order to enjoy Wagner, for example, I have to somewhat consciously block out thoughts of the type of people who were likely sitting in the audience, paying him money, for most of his premieres.
But what that background information can do is provide some incredible depth. Because great works do not come from boring people…their lives may be simple, or uncontroversial, but rarely are they mundane.
Take for example the U2 song “One”. You don’t need to know its genesis to appreciate it as an amazing song about (among other things) people who are very different from each other, to the extent of outright conflict and dislike, having a brief, grace-filled moment of clarity where they realize that they are more alike than not, and that the strongest, most powerful bonds between people come not from chatting about things they agree on, but from stretching across incredibly vast divides and attempting to connect anyway, not just in spite of but because of those divides.
But here’s the story of where the song came from:
[I should note that most of the narrative details of this period—and the direct quote below—are not taken from my personal experience…obviously…but from the book U2: At the End of the World, by Bill Flanagan, a masterful work by a masterful writer.]
U2 were in a major creative crisis. They had taken a short time off after finishing the last leg of the Joshua Tree tour (the Lovetown stretch in Australia and other nearby locations), and had regrouped in East Germany on the night the Berlin Wall fell to try to create some new music for this new world they were seeing unfold before them.
Aside from the book-jacket-worthy creative aspirations, they were also hoping that the change in location would be able to reinvigorate them. After the years-long tour for The Joshua Tree, their meteoric success over that stretch, and tail-end critical backlash against Rattle and Hum, they were burnt out creatively and emotionally. Larry Mullen at one point said that he felt like the world’s most expensive jukebox: just go out and play U2’s greatest hits. One night on the Lovetown tour they were so jaded by their experiences that they went out and played their entire setlist completely backwards, just to see if anyone noticed: no one did.
They needed to prove to themselves that their success wasn’t just a fluke, that there was substance behind the celebrity, and that whatever it was they had done to generate these insane levels of sales and popularity, they could do it again.
The question staring at them…were they famous and successful because of their work, or could they (to borrow an analogy that I’ll expand on later) publish their shopping list and have it sell millions of copies?
(This is, incidentally, a pretty critical theme to what I’m talking about here; time to get out your highlighters.)
And within a few weeks, it was obvious that nothing was working. They were fighting with each other, in complete disagreement as to what “new” meant. Camps were being formed, sides chosen…on one hand, there was lofty discussion about “sound” and “vibe” and the like, and on the other hand there were no actual songs to work on, regardless of the soundbites. Things were getting desperate, with a few measures of melody going through dozens of wildly different incarnations, everyone hoping and praying that something would finally stick…and fearing that it wouldn’t.
They had all, at one point or another, thrown around a few lines during interviews, meant totally in the abstract and theoretical, that what made the band special was that they were friends, and liked doing this music thing with each other, and it didn’t matter what was happening with the music itself, if those bonds, those bits of common ground ever weren’t there, they’d quit, it wouldn’t be worth going on.
And now, no longer abstract or theoretical, those lines started surfacing between them…as in, “This isn’t working, we’re at each others’ throats…why are we bothering with this anymore?”
And then, one day, the Edge was working on a new section for yet another song that appeared to be going nowhere, trying to decide between two possible guitar pieces that might work…
“He comes back into the control booth, picks up an acoustic guitar, and plays both of them for Lanois and Bono to see which they prefer. They say that those both sound pretty good—what would it be like if you put them together?
Edge goes back out into the studio and starts playing the two sections together, one into the other. Larry and Adam fall in behind him on the drums and bass. Bono feels the muse knocking on his head…[he] goes out to the microphone and begins improvising words and a melody: ‘We’re one, but we’re not the same—we get to carry each other, carry each other.’
By the next morning they have recorded ‘One,’ as strong a song as U2 has ever written. It came to them all together and it came easily, as a gift.”
Now take that story—the initial conditions of disagreement and strife, the underlying fear that they’re no good and about to be found out, the growing dislike for their closest friends, and that grace-filled afternoon when this song was “written”—and go listen to “One” again.
Bit different, isn’t it?
In some cases, stories like these can provide just enough garnish around a specific work to give it some added flavor…like I said, “One” is a pretty damn good song, whether you know how it was written or not.
But in other cases, the story of serious, long-term creative crisis can entirely change your perception of a work, drawing all of the themes and events into a whole different focus.
Part 2 – Wherein the author really gets down to business, and continues talking about people other than himself