sxsw digest no 2…

so I was at the keynote interview yesterday with young and jonathan demme, which was ok, but I have to make a confession: I have major issues with the big boomer dinosaurs of song. I guess it’s mainly because I think they never accepted the teaching responsibility that naturally belongs to leading artists. teaching is a necessity for artists who work in less financially remunerative forms, and I say that’s a good thing. it’s good for the artists and the students/future artists, and it’s good for the art. it creates a scene, community, etc (however insular and backstabbing it might be).


it always bugs me to think that people like neil young never really came down off their rock star mountaintop to teach and share what they do. that’s some selfishness right there. that’s entitlement. but it goes even further, because not only didn’t they teach, but in some vague way they still to this day imply that what they do can’t be taught. they characterize themselves as the chosen vessels of the muse, as if they never worked or tried to figure out how to do it. I guarantee you that when neil young was in his teens and twenties, that all he did was try to figure out how it’s done. but in the keynote, young trotted out his worn-out old notion that says you have to treat creativity like a wild animal, approach it cautiously, make little noises to get it to come out of its hole, and then carefully try to engage with it for a while before it runs away.
ok, first of all, there is something profound about this notion, don’t misunderstand me. it’s quite true, and it’s inspiring. but coming from someone like neil young, there’s an antique, sixties, almost cheesy whiff of anti-intellectualism about it that I find both kind of funny and also really really irrelevant. maybe it’s some kind of dusty, kerouac-lite romanticism? I don’t know, but I’ve experienced this at bob dylan shows too in the last 5 or 10 years, and I’m a HUGE dylan fan. it reminds me of easy rider, like these guys have a little dude inside themselves cruising around on a chopper, wearing an american flag helmet and thinking “right on man, I’m free out here where no one can touch me, talk to me or tell me what to do.” listening to young yesterday, I was thinking: “it’s a different world now, neil. you can park the bike and get involved. it’s ok.”
ok, maybe we all have that little chopper dude inside us, if we’re really trying to be honest here. fine. and you can’t think your way into making good art, everyone knows that. but come on, any aesthetic approach that systematically amputates a human ability, especially one as central to our nature as reflecting, considering, imagining, thinking, is just wack. call me crazy, but I’m into the whole person making music. use what you’ve got however you feel you need to, and make sure what you produce is good. that’s the game. oh, and it’s something everyone can do. that’s important.
ok, let the angry replies begin. I know it’s probably going to take some back and forth to clarify…. but before the real flames start up, please remember that I know that mr young is a definitive, titanic genius. I have no problem whatsoever with the work he’s done over many many years. I lurve his songs and records. I just can’t relate to some of the things he says. and I don’t think it’s crazy to think that superstardom might have distorted his perspective about some things.
just a thought,
mz

Pandora

The Pandora Team http://www.pandora.com/

19 thoughts on “sxsw digest no 2…

  1. I hadn’t ever thought of it before, but I totally agree with you about this. Music suffers from so many problems that don’t really afflict any of the other arts. For example, I feel like it’s much more subject to the trendiness of fashion than most of the other arts. Since, for most people, music is so much about personal and, espeically, group identity it’s hard for it to ever totally become the changing (improving?) testbed for ideas and materials that so many other arts are.
    One aspect of this that’s closely related to the lack of teaching you point out is the lack of a grand “narrative” for the history of popular music or any self-conscious exmaination of that. A painting, scultpture, or architecture that didn’t present some take on the historical context behind the present moment would be pretty unimaginable. Yet, somehow it’s ok for music influence and study to only ever proceed randomly from emulating one thing that you like to another. This is what great ambitious teachers (and historians) are for. To give us a sense of the past and of the new places, we ourselves can take the medium.

  2. I do not have a problem with with MZ comments so no “angry reply”. MZ just does not know Neil. His comments may have been mildly relevent in 1976 but Neil is so far beyond romantic notions of what the sixties meant and his level of Rock stardom. Given the fact that Neil is arguably one of the greatest legends of the medium and the only one I can name that is consistently releasing relevent material 40 years after the fact, I think we can cut the guy a little slack for being aware of his level of fame. Given all that he is virtually ego-less. Neil owes nobody anything and if you examine interviews over the years regarding his writing he is telling the truth not being glib or “I have some kind of gift and you don’t” that MZ suggests.

  3. I think the comments say more about unrealistic expectations MZ is projecting onto Neil Young than what Neil Young is about, and betray some ignorance about his life and work. “Teaching responsibility..”? Where is this a written obligation of any artist? However, I consider the massive amount of information that Neil Young has made available over the years a superb record of teaching, especally when you take into account that this is a guy with an 11th grade education, and so wouldn’t qualify to teach anywhere (unless he got credit for “life experience”). Forty years of interviews, his catalog and performance record are all tremendously useful to musicians and artist of all stripes. The comments also make him out to be a self indulgent Artist with no sense of community or political involvement. Does this mean that his long participation in the Bridge School and Farm Aid are some kind of self absorbed hippie fantasies? MZ may find the way he expresses himself to be dated, but what can you say about the author of lyrics like “Once I thought I saw you, in a crowded hazy bar, dancing on the light from star to star” ?

  4. so glad to hear dissenting views, especially ones that are so well-expressed! I think it’s important to reiterate that my comments were a reaction to the keynote interview at sxsw, and not a reference to neil young overall as a person or an icon etc. to clarify, I object to certain aspects of the general overall stance of certain very fortunate artists who exist at a remove from the general society, and who dominate it from there. young’s descriptions of his creative process are his own, he’s free to them, and in many ways we all benefit from his creativity. and it goes without saying that he owes nothing to me or anyone else. what I’m saying, though, is that his emphasis on the ineffable and intuitive aspects of his relationship to creating things 1)is of little help/use to artists in general (the people he might teach); 2) serve to reinforce a wrong belief that artistic achievement is like some kind of visitation from grace, or some kind of chosen state, rather than the result of total commitment and human engagement; and 3)that neil young is somehow more of a person than you are. this has nothing to do with charity, being a good person, or any of that stuff. it has to do with a certain antique notion of what creativity is. and though neil young’s work is still quite good, his rhetoric about it is sort of useless and self-serving. I’d also say that overall, the incredibly gifted and fortunate crew (dylan, joni mitchell, even leonard cohen) of which neil young is a part, have always lived in their remote mansions. they may have “given” us their records to learn from, but compared to artists who work in other forms who are generally forced to teach for a living, they haven’t passed on much else. since they’ve been unbelievably well-rewarded for their work, I think it’s a glaring failure on their parts.

  5. “his emphasis on the ineffable and intuitive aspects of his relationship to creating things 1)is of little help/use to artists in general (the people he might teach)”
    I understand where he’s coming from, what’s so difficult about it? This has been how he has always worked, at least in the initial phase of developing his work. I find it connects to his description of his epileptic states, and is something that he doesn’t have a whole lot of control over. He also is, at the very least, ambivalent about analysing it. I can see being concerned that the left brain would try to over ride the right brain. As a public speaker I have found him to be surprisingly halting and at time inarticulate, while as a performer he can be a fury posessed. Part of his essence has always been contradiction. Sensitive, vulnerable singer/songwriter, tough/shrewd SOB businessman.
    “2) serve to reinforce a wrong belief that artistic achievement is like some kind of visitation from grace, or some kind of chosen state, rather than the result of total commitment and human engagement”
    Well, this goes back to the connection between his “creative’ state and epilepsy, and that it is only the starting point in his process. I think the total commitment and human engagement is a given, as evidenced by his drive to make music and perform. He could have retired years ago, yet he is still in the game. He wants his work out there, and he doesn’t want to repeat himself. That’s a great lesson.
    “and 3)that neil young is somehow more of a person than you are.”
    This says alot about the person making the statement. Neil Young is coming from a position and perspective that few have, but so what? He IS a very unusual person. I wouldn’t infer from his manner that he is somehow supercilious. He has just lived a very strange life.

  6. Am I really the only one who thinks that Neil Young hasn’t produced an excellent record in maybe 20 years? And I think it’s precisely because of what MZ is talking about. Artists who isolate (either out of necessity or by choice) generally, not always, decline. Does anyone out there, except maybe people who’ve aged alongside Young, really want to spin Praire Wind on infinte repeat like they would Harvest or Everyone Knows This is Nowhere? Maybe he is just making music for his cohort, and maybe that’s fine, but it’s not “relevant” in the way that a record from 30 years ago can change someone’s life today like his early catalog.
    It’s almost across the boad with artists from that era who earned a kind of superstardom that may never occur again because the nature of the business has changed so radically. Who stays relevant and continues to make masterpieces when they comlpetely check out from society? A tiny handful of recent records from that group of musicians stand out today. Got any new Lou Reed, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Brian Wilson (Smile doesn’t count) records in your desert island picks?
    The stuff that does stand up generally comes from them branching out and working with younger people or other cultures.
    As for teaching, historically, in almost all the arts, the mentor/apprentice relationship was assumed. Do these artists have an obligation to follow that? I guess it depends if they see themselves as artists or entertainers. As artists, I would say flat out, yes. Someone helped get them there, and part of the bargain is they turn around and bring others along. And even as entertainers, it’s shooting yourself in the foot creatively to think that you don’t have something to gain by being open to the next generation coming in behind you.

  7. Neil Young has a history of working with contemporary artists. Maybe it’s too long ago for some, but he worked with Pearl Jam 10 years ago, Lucinda Williams opened for him on parts of the Greendale tour, Social Distortion and Sonic Youth opened for him during Weld (all right, ancient history for some). Those artists were his choices, not the promoters. Plenty of artists have expressed an interest in working with him, that’s for sure( Doyle Bramhall comes to mind off the bat). Personally, I would love to see NY work with Son Volt. I don’t think that or other collaborations are inconceivable, given his history.

  8. absolutely, neil’s worked with cool people (I was at the bridge school show when sonic youth got booed off the stage and kim gave everyone the finger). neil’s super cool, especially for a superstar (but then again is it really saying that much to say that he’s cooler than, say, celine dion?). as a superstar, I’d say that he sometimes even gets credit for doing things that everyone else does. people seem so incredibly blown away by the fact that he’s “stayed hungry” and “keeps on trying new things,” but that sounds like pretty much every other artist, especially if you consider novelists, painters, poets. OF COURSE an artist stays hungry and tries new things. now I agree that he’s always done cool things, and that’s certainly to his credit. he has good taste. good instincts. he’s a genius. one of the best songwriters ever, perhaps. he’s disarmingly honest, simple, and direct, in spite of the fact that with his success he could easily be as bloated as elvis circa 1977. that said, his generation of superstars are still remote. also, it’s one thing to choose to work with elite, developed artists (before we give neil a human service award let’s not forget how much cred he gets from his association with these younger, cooler, more avant artists – it’s not like he’s making big sacrifices to do this stuff); it’s another thing to open yourself up to kids who are totally fresh and just learning to be creative. to let really unformed artists soak you up, absorb the texture of your relationship to creativity, etc. [side note/disclaimer: I have personally benefitted from neil’s generosity – he let me use his 9 foot steinway grand piano and studio for my last record. it was very kind of him to do that. I’m grateful]. I’m sure he’s also done some of this with artists I don’t know. in general, though, in the context of his enormous success, his repeated emphasis on the obscurity of his process – it’s otherness – seems a bit farfetched. I seriously doubt that his process is as simple as he makes it out to be. I just read 2 novels by haruki murakami (kafka on the shore and the wind up bird chronicle) that are arguably far deeper, more mysterious, and yes better than pretty much anything neil has ever done, and it’s just weird to see neil seem so enamored of his own mysterious, singular inner workings.

  9. ‘I seriously doubt that his process is as simple as he makes it out to be.”
    -You seem hung up on this. I don’t get the problem. Somebody asks a question, he gives an answer. It seems straightforward. He basically describes getting initial flashes of ideas, phrases, basic chords, and then sketches them out fairly quickly. Performance and repetition provide some ability to adjust lyrics, tempo, tone, etc.
    ” I just read 2 novels by haruki murakami (kafka on the shore and the wind up bird chronicle) that are arguably far deeper, more mysterious, and yes better than pretty much anything neil has ever done,”
    -But you can’t dance to them. To compare NY to a novelist is irrelevant. He is not literary in that sense. He’s a guy with an 11th grade education who wanted to be a rock-n-roller, and succeeded wildly beyond anyone’s expectations. He’s closer to the tradition of “Awomp-bop-aloo-bop-a-womp-bam-boom!” I mean, how long did that take?
    “.. and it’s just weird to see neil seem so enamored of his own mysterious, singular inner workings.’
    -People keep asking the questions, he gives variations on the answer. Perhaps if he was asked a more probing question, he would give a deeper answer. I think he expresses it as best as he is able to. I would fault the people asking the questions on this.

  10. I love the lethem comments, greg – fortress of solitude is an amazing book. in my original post I said that there’s obviously something profound about what young is saying, and I also said that art can’t be created by thinking, teaching or the like. in fact, my original point was less fundamentalist than this discussion makes it seem. and I think that this great lethem comment actually supports my idea, which is at its core a call for balance. if, as lethem says, novelists should be a bit more reckless, then isn’t it also possible that musicians could be a bit more reflective? in both cases, it’s a move toward greater freedom and more self-expression, a wish for the artist to marshall more of his or her own human abilities, be they cognitive, emotional, or better yet, a total synthesis, a kind of intellectual-emotional thinking/teaching/not thinking chorus.

  11. Interesting that MZ should mention Murakami. I just finished Kafka and was totally flattened. After reading it, I felt like murakami was a friend and seriously considered writing him a letter. I would love to sit and have lunch with him, and maybe I’m insanely deceived, but I feel like in some way that’s a possible reality, or at least hearing him speak somewhere and having the chance to go up and chat with him afterward. Whereas with Neil Young or Dylan, I feel like it’s a complete pipe dream that I’d ever even gain remote access to their presence.
    I am coming from over ten years experience in avant garde music world where even the highest level musician, Cecil Taylor, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, is basically accessible (with rare exception). And the most interesting of those musicians are working with young players, bringing them up, taking risks on them, etc… Anthony Braxton (a MacArthur Award winner, and ostensibly one of the most important American composers/saxophonists) is doing a week run at a club in NY right now, and he put out word of an open invitation to lunch all week for anyone that wanted to come and talk about his work and his process. Now braxton is intensely confusing sometimes and hard to follow, but he tries very very hard to lay open parts of his process, at least in his own terms (which don’t always translate to clear terms for others). But why is this all so different in the pop world?
    I think it has everything to do with wealth and celebrity. It’s a huge conversation, but basically, fame is almost across the board a toxin for artists. Not everyone, not always, but pop music and the entertainment machine are pretty much the opposite of art and the art process. Why is it that composers, painters, and writers generally get better, deeper, more focused as they age and pop artists who garner mainstream success and fame falter after the first 5-7 years of their career. The only exception maybe being sonic youth. And I would argue that it’s because A) they are improvisors and B) they are a band and it’s not strictly about the ego of one Superstar. AND they still had a long streak prior to bringing in Jim O’Rourke where they weren’t that interesting. Which proves my pervious point all the more. Fresh blood.
    Even if you look at the careers of “serious” composers, the ones who gained major fame – Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, John Adams – what happens is they get stroked for a certain shtick early on, and it stiltifies them. They get lost in their work and they don’t produce anything on the level of what sparked their careers. It’s a classic syndrome, almost hackneyed by now.

  12. What a great dialogue – good hustle Tom. MZ I think you are still a little too hung up on the genuine simplicity or lack thereof that you suggest in Neil’s process. Neil has consistently focused on simplicity not only in his writing and the process but in record making. I fail to see Neil as being overly enamored with the mystery of his song writing as if it is a gift. He even stated recently that he has the oringinal scribblings that are clearly unedited and now can be found on Prairie Wind in finished form. Go read the lyrics to Sugar Mountain and tell me that is not a stream of consciousness unedited flow that took as long as it took to write the words on paper to write. What makes Neil a brilliant artist is that he does have a knack or a propensity (I won’t say gift) to write the way he does. I have been touched by it since I heard Heart of Gold as a nine year old – so to the degree that he may or may not be relevent today or the work may not be as good…all I know is that I was driving through the Wisconsin countryside at 6AM listening to Parairie Wind for the first time and “Its a Dream” moved me to my core and I knew as I listened that there was nothing magic about going from “In the morning when I wake up” to “the old bridge pilings” just pure simplistic Neil taking a little walk through some stored mental imagery. Lets just call it good and as Neil once said “If it sounds good – ship it”.

  13. good points. I agree with most of them, but to quote from my original post, on the topic of the ineffability of the creative process: “there is something profound about this notion, don’t misunderstand me. it’s quite true, and it’s inspiring;” and on neil in general: “I know that mr young is a definitive, titanic genius. I have no problem whatsoever with the work he’s done over many many years. I lurve his songs and records.” so I only disagree with your characterization of my perspective. in truth, I’m really not as hung up on the simplicity thing as you think I am…:). I promise.

  14. “big boomer dinosaurs”
    Point taken, in general, although it most cases it is moot since many of them are burned out, irrelevant or dead by now. Their pronouncements and attitudes were 100x worse 30+ years ago. I’ve always considered David Crosby the king of that ilk, especially as he saw himself as some sort of arrogant king of the hippies so long ago. Ugh. Many produced poetry, songs and rhetoric that sounded as awful then as they would now. “Triad” by Crosby is a perfect example of this horrid pretense, and, frankly, as a group, I would put CSN in this category. I’ll leave Y out, but I will pin some guilt by association on him.

  15. I agree that NY’s work with Pearl Jam and Dave Matthews are his way of giving back to the youngsters. With his duties with his youngest son, he seems to have devoted a LOT of time and energy to that area, helping children, developing software/hardware controllers, etc.
    Even if he could go into great detail about his methods, etc., what good would it do? There’s only about 1 in 100,000 people that will become artists worth someone else’s time anyway.
    Seems to me the best advice would be to practice. As Tenacious D say, “Quit you day job! Focus on your craft–one time”

  16. To add a couple more thoughts: the original post said it best: When Neil was young you can bet he studied others and practiced like mad (I believe one of his famous quotes about why his first marriage in the 1960s didn’t work was he picked up the guitar more than his wife). There’s your answer!
    And to the post about sonic youth being the only artist to grow with age–that’s ridiculous. First, they’ve put out some absolute crap in this decade.
    Second, there are plenty of rock bands/songwriters who have got better with age. To name a few, Wilco, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, even Tom Petty. And Dylan’s Time Out of Mind would probably make it onto my desert list above anything else he’s put out.

  17. On the Sonic Youth issue, beyond their continued quality, I think they’re actually a great example of a (relatively) popular band teaching and helping younger artists. Specifically, after they’d been signed to Geffen for a couple of years, they convinced the label to bring on board a whole generation of younger bands they’d worked with, toured with, recorded with, or mentored in one form or another: Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Hole, etc.
    When you add in the Riot Grrl scene, which they also championed, that’s pretty much grunge right there.
    I think this example speaks to the effect of working with younger artists on the scale of a band’s long term influence. As a (relatively) young musician, Sonic Youth’s shadow seems enormous to me — not many of the bands I care about seem possible without them — while Neil Young, and many of the other eccentric 60s icons, however titanic their talent, seem pretty irrelevant.
    And Sonic Youth has kept doing it since the early nineties. Most recently with the noise scene in New York: Erase Erata, Wolf Eyes, etc. Even as their own records veer widely in quality, there they are, shaping the future of music by helping upcoming bands, ensuring themselves a legacy as the most important force in creative rock music in the last thirty years.

  18. As someone who has listened to NY since Buffalo Springfield days, I’ve always appreciated him for what he is…a songwriter, poet and musician who has written on a breathtakingly prolific scale, the vast majority of which is silly and embarassing, but with an occasional gem of sublime excellence. Almost all art is mediocre, which is why artists are encouraged to be be prolific–accidents may happen! Excellence is extremely rare and Neil Young has had exactly his share. Ben Hogan once said that if he hit just one shot in an entire round of golf exactly the way he wanted to hit it, he considered himself extremely lucky. For Hogan, that was about 1 in 68 shots on average. 1 in 68 is about par for the course with Neil Young and still, we’re lucky for it. Ben Hogan had about the same education as Neil Young and was as prolific in golf as Young is in music….but, Hogan spent his entire life teaching as well as performing his art, because he was a great teacher as well as an artist. Like Neil Young, Hogan too was self-absorbed. As the time he made a hole-in-one in a tournament, he made no expression or sound until they walked up on the green and Hogan merely said to his playing partner, “looks like you’re away.” Yet, Hogan wasn’t merely self-absorbed. He spent a lifetime giving back to younger players and the game itself through teaching both in words and action–because he could. Based on interviews I’ve read over the past 40 years, I’m pretty sure that as a teacher, Neil Young would be incoherent and incomprehensible. It is a gift from God, that he does not teach.

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