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It’s easy to keep adding and adding to something isn’t it? The great designer Dieter Ram is who really coined the phrase “Less, but better” his ten principles of good design inspired Jonathan Ives who went on to design the imac, iphone, ipad and so on. I even heard a talk once with producer Scott Storch who talks about “sandbagging” a track by adding too many bells and whistles when the actual song is not strong enough. Try breaking everything down to the most basic element of what is needed. But how to do this with art? I can only speak to production and music, but certainly we have all seen the photo with far to many photoshop filters, where Ansel Adams simple style still can’t be duplicated. Trying to do too many sonic tricks with a week melody is simple trying to polish a turd, far better to scrap and start over.
The best advice I ever heard on the subject was from photographer Ken Rockwell. On his blog he talks about looking at your best 20 photos then picking out the best 4 of them and scrapping the rest. Rinse and repeat. You will feel yourself getting better and more able to discern the quality of your own work. So maybe its time to try that with your music. Pick your 10 best tracks, then scrap all but two of them. Create more and keep refining and honing your craft. Not everything you create will be a masterpiece. In fact I feel that about 70% of what I create is not so good, the trick is knowing what 70% needs to go and that is what separates the men from the boys.
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert Einstein
Ferguson. The shooting death of Michael Brown. The top story of the day!, week!, or month!...depending on what happens next... Good practice for news commentators, journalists, and editorialists. Variations on a theme. Militarization of the police, police brutality, racism, denial of first amendment rights, media censorship...what else is new? I do not mean to come off as insensitive. I'm not. This leaves me distraught about how we treat each other and the incongruity with what we learned from early childhood about what being "American" was all about. And what happened to the motto "Protect and Serve"? I am thankful for social media, where the word gets out faster than on radio, TV, or Internet news. I feel bad that I learned too late about the National Moment of Silence last Thursday but I wholeheartedly support such efforts - I was working as plans were being made locally. The thought keeps ringing in my mind "here we are again!" I thought the same thing when Rodney King was beaten by LA police in the early 90s.
In the 60s we wrote songs about social unrest. Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction" comes to mind, as well as several by Fraternity of Man, "Just Doing Our Job", "Field Day", "Stop Me, Citate Me". As you can see by the titles their focus was on police brutality. In "Field Day" they sing about the police being excited to put on their militaristic gear because they don't get many chances to to so. Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention had several songs early on, "Plastic People", "Trouble Coming Every Day" (Zappa's excellent reflection on the 1966 Watts riots), "Concentration Moon", "Mom & Dad". That last one was one of the few times Zappa's emotions went further than sardonic humor, or despite the sardonicism, "Mama! Mama! Someone said they made some noise. The cops have shot some girls & boys. You'll sit home & drink all night. They looked too weird...it served them right. Ever take a minute just to show a real emotion. In between the moisture cream & velvet facial lotion? Ever tell your kids, you're glad that they can think? Ever say you loved 'em? Ever let 'em watch you drink? Ever wonder why your daughter looked so sad? It's such a drag to have to love a plastic Mom & Dad. Mama! Mama! Your child was killed in the park today. Shot by the cops as she quietly lay. By the side of the creeps she knew...They killed her too." Quite a distinction to Art Linkletter's single with his daughter, Diane, "We Love You, Call Collect" which was released in 1969, a few weeks after Diane Linkletter's suicide. It won a Grammy in 1970 for Best Spoken Word Recording. Sad that Art blamed LSD on his daughter's death but no drugs were in her system when she jumped from her 6th story apartment window. Art also lied that Ultimate Spinach' "Mind Flowers" was on the turntable when she jumped. You see, lyrics from that piece included the phrase "I am falling into the quicksand of my troubled mind." He just couldn't see that perhaps he "pushed" her too hard to have a career in his image, rather than her being her own person. Irony. Linkletter gets a Grammy. Zappa gets banned from many radio stations.
There were others with biting commentary back in the 60s. Steppenwolf's John Kay wrote the lyrics to "The Ostrich". In that song he touched on everything from war, police brutality, environmentalism, corporatocracy; all beautifully and cynically bitter in delivery. He went further in the song "Monster": "The spirit was freedom and justice. And it's keepers seem friendly and kind. It's leaders were supposed to serve the country but now they won't pay it no mind. 'cause the people got fat and grew lazy. Now their vote is like a meaningless joke. You know they talk about law, about order, but it's all just an echo of what they've been told. 'cause there's a monster on the loose. It's got our heads into a noose. And it just sits there... watchin'... Our cities have turned into jungles, and corruption is stranglin' the land. The police force is watching the people and the people just can't understand. We don't know how to mind our own business 'cause the whole world's got to be just like us. Now we are fighting a war over there no matter who's the winner, we can't pay the cost". And this was in 1969. These songs should be mandatory listening for those who want to understand the late 60s from an enligtened young adult perspective. What do they say? Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it's mistakes?
Of course you had the popular songs "Ohio" by CSN&Y, "For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield, "Masters of War" by Dylan. The list could go on and on. Today, not so much. There is the occasional song like Pink's "Dear Mr. President", or the music of Steve Earle, but they are few and far between, except you can find some by the more local, indie artists. At least that is my opinion based on what I've heard - I would invite anyone to prove me wrong here. Please, give me hope that we are not losing "the protest song" as a form of expression - that music can still be an effective vehicle for social commentary and change.
Thursday night, MSNBC was on when I arrived home from work. I just couldn't take any more. I went to my pub and pulled some early Ram Dass spoken word recordings from my CD shelf. His voice was calming. The ideas were deep and meaningful; relevant to now; as always. He reminds me that it's okay. I can feel saddened, and even bitter. But as I transcend, I begin to realize I am just going through the motions. I am observing myself being bitter, being saddened, grieving. I need not let the events of the day dictate my emotions. I can note them. I can note myself reacting to them, and as I note this, I am changing. Bitterness melts to compassion. It is okay. It is okay that things are not okay. There are thngs I can do to work toward improvement of the situation - starting with what I do within myself to see things more clearly, by treating those I encounter with respect and love. If I don't see clearly the true root of all these problems I will spend energy needlessly on fixing the wrong things. And I think of how many times I have fixed the wrong things, or have taken a "me first" approach, letting ego get in the way of becoming. Building myself up only to watch it crumble before me as I begin to realize those from whom I desire affirmation of my existence can see through it all and perhaps are saddened, themselves, by my facade.