music


I just heard a fascinating interview with sculptor and stop-motion animator John Frame, who explained how his long-term project “The Tale of the Crippled Boy” came to him in a dream. Frame had been a sculptor for decades but had hit a creative wall, or more precisely had run out of steam, to use another metaphor. He had reached a point in his creative work where he just couldn’t create anymore.

Then one night he had a lucid dream in which he imagined an entire world populated with characters in motion. He somehow recognized that these characters were his own creations, and in that dream state he spent several hours observing this world. When when he woke up early in the morning, he captured it all in drawings and notes and storyboards and began his current stop-motion animation project. Did I mention that he had never done stop-motion before? But now “The Tale of the Crippled Boy” has become his entire creative activity.

You can see Frame’s initial animations here on Vimeo:

I have to admit that I’m not drawn to the creative product, fascinating and detailed as it is — too bizarre to appeal to me. But what I am intrigued by is the way the idea came to the creator — seemingly arriving out of the blue in a dream state. Everybody dreams, and I suspect that lucid dreaming is fairly common. However, the important thing here is that Frame got up and captured it all so he could turn the idea into a creative product. It’s also significant that the stop-motion product draws on his many years of work as a sculptor.

This experience illustrates what I think are some important lessons about the creative process, and it follows the ideas set out in my favorite book on this topic — A Technique for Producing Ideas, by James Webb Young. Written in 1965, this is a brilliant treatise for anyone involved in creative work — Young was actually an advertising guy, but his ideas really apply to anyone in the arts. It’s only 36 pages. You can buy it for a few dollars on Amazon and read it in an hour or so.

Thinking about Young’s book and John Frame’s experience, here are some lessons I extract:

  1. Work very hard over the long term to develop your creative skills, whatever they are — design, writing, drawing, sculpture, painting, music — or skills that are creative but more commonly used in the business world, such as copywriting, graphic design, or art direction. I would also extend this lesson into areas such as innovation, science, engineering, and architecture.
  2. When you are up against a creative problem, put a lot of concentrated effort into analyzing the problem, doing research, brainstorming, testing ideas.
  3. When you are sick and tired of all that concentrating, take a break for an hour, a day, a week, or even longer. Do something else. Relax. Exercise. Go for a hike. Watch a movie. Read. Or go to sleep.
  4. At an unexpected moment an idea or a series of ideas will come to you. Be prepared to capture these ideas — have the tools you need always available to write down or draw out ideas that come to you. I always carry a pocket notebook and set of pens with me. Ideas often come to me when I’m out walking. Like Frame, ideas have sometimes come to me in dreams or just before sleeping or just upon waking up.
  5. After the idea comes to you, work with it and adjust it and figure out how to make it work in a practical way. It might be the solution to the problem you’ve been working on, or it might be the source of an entirely new and unexpected creative endeavor.

You can hear the interview with John Frame at The Story — his is the second part of that particular show.

ARB — 14 Oct. 2012

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According to Rolling Stone, here’s where Howlin’ Wolf’s song “Smokestack Lightnin'” got its name:

The inspiration, said Wolf, was watching trains cut through the night: “We used to sit out in the country and see the trains go by, watch the sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning.”

Here’s a video of Wolf himself doing the song, along with a little howlin’:

AB — 22 June 2011

The announcement of the winner of the National Hollerin’ Contest held over the past weekend in Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina, USA, reminded me of this time-honored southern tradition. I first became aware of it when a rock festival I attended about 40 years ago included a marvelous performance by the winner of the contest, who hollered a fantastic version of “Old Time Religion.”

This year, Tony Peacock of Siler City, NC, won the contest with a rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” hollered in just under four minutes. See the announcement today in the News & Observer: “N.C. hollerer wins with ‘Summertime.'”

There are some things that can happen only in North Carolina, and this is one of them. (Other examples are Benson’s Mule Days, the town of Lizard Lick, and the correct understanding of what constitutes barbecue — but we can discuss those another day.)

It’s a crime that there is no video of Peacock’s performance on YouTube, but this video from a few years ago has some nice examples of hollerin’, ending with a version of “Amazing Grace”:

In this video, the hollerer does a little lecturing about the practice:

AB — 22 June 2010

Not only has the music group the Grateful Dead created a musical and cultural phenomenon, but as a very successful business, they make a good case study in management.

That’s the conclusion drawn by Joshua Green, writing for The Atlantic — see “Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead,” March 2010.

American Beauty album cover at NY Historical SocietyGreen’s article is inspired by the recent announcement that the members of the Grateful Dead would be donating their archives to the University of California at Santa Cruz. UCSC will be using the archives to create extensive publicly-available resources. The institution is currently processing the materials, but you can read about their progress at The Grateful Dead Archive. Initial materials from the archive are on exhibit now through July 4, 2010, at the New-York Historical Society — see “Grateful Dead: Now Playing at the New-York Historical Society.”

Green reviews the curious and controversial history of academic scholarship focused on the Grateful Dead but highlights an interesting truth of the Dead’s story — they were and are a very successful business, and much of that is due to their enlightened focus on providing customer value. Green writes that,

Without intending to—while intending, in fact, to do just the opposite—the band pioneered ideas and practices that were subsequently embraced by corporate America. One was to focus intensely on its most loyal fans. It established a telephone hotline to alert them to its touring schedule ahead of any public announcement, reserved for them some of the best seats in the house, and capped the price of tickets, which the band distributed through its own mail-order house. If you lived in New York and wanted to see a show in Seattle, you didn’t have to travel there to get tickets—and you could get really good tickets, without even camping out. “The Dead were masters of creating and delivering superior customer value,” Barry Barnes, a business professor at the H. Wayne Huizenga School of Business and Entrepreneurship at Nova Southeastern University, in Florida, told me….

As Barnes and other scholars note, the musicians who constituted the Dead were anything but naive about their business. They incorporated early on, and established a board of directors (with a rotating CEO position) consisting of the band, road crew, and other members of the Dead organization. They founded a profitable merchandising division and, peace and love notwithstanding, did not hesitate to sue those who violated their copyrights. But they weren’t greedy, and they adapted well. They famously permitted fans to tape their shows, ceding a major revenue source in potential record sales. According to Barnes, the decision was not entirely selfless: it reflected a shrewd assessment that tape sharing would widen their audience, a ban would be unenforceable, and anyone inclined to tape a show would probably spend money elsewhere, such as on merchandise or tickets. The Dead became one of the most profitable bands of all time.

In the early days of Internet marketing, I remember reading the article by Dead songwriter John Perry Barlow, in Wired magazine of March 1994, “The Economy of Ideas: A framework for patents and copyrights in the Digital Age. (Everything you know about intellectual property is wrong.)” I was impressed at the time by his prescient grasp of the intellectual-property issues presented by the Internet and online commerce.

In that article, Barlow wrote:

With physical goods, there is a direct correlation between scarcity and value. Gold is more valuable than wheat, even though you can’t eat it. While this is not always the case, the situation with information is often precisely the reverse. Most soft goods increase in value as they become more common. Familiarity is an important asset in the world of information. It may often be true that the best way to raise demand for your product is to give it away….

In regard to my own soft product, rock ‘n’ roll songs, there is no question that the band I write them for, the Grateful Dead, has increased its popularity enormously by giving them away. We have been letting people tape our concerts since the early seventies, but instead of reducing the demand for our product, we are now the largest concert draw in America, a fact that is at least in part attributable to the popularity generated by those tapes.

True, I don’t get any royalties on the millions of copies of my songs which have been extracted from concerts, but I see no reason to complain. The fact is, no one but the Grateful Dead can perform a Grateful Dead song, so if you want the experience and not its thin projection, you have to buy a ticket from us. In other words, our intellectual property protection derives from our being the only real-time source of it.

Insights from thinkers like Barlow led me to write my 1995 e-book, The Smart Business Guide to Internet Marketing, one of the first e-books published and sold online (now archived for free at Optimization Marketing). In fact, Barlow was one of the people who bought a copy, although I don’t flatter myself by thinking there was much in it that he hadn’t already thought of.

I think a key insight from the Grateful Dead case study is that a successful business ultimately has to rest on customer relationships. Interactive media and technologies place unprecedented control in the hands of customers, and the smart business these days is the one that realizes that the success of its brand will rest on its customer experience.

In the Atlantic article, Barlow tells Green,

What people today are beginning to realize is what became obvious to us back then—the important correlation is the one between familiarity and value, not scarcity and value. Adam Smith taught that the scarcer you make something, the more valuable it becomes. In the physical world, that works beautifully. But we couldn’t regulate [taping at] our shows, and you can’t online. The Internet doesn’t behave that way. But here’s the thing: if I give my song away to 20 people, and they give it to 20 people, pretty soon everybody knows me, and my value as a creator is dramatically enhanced. That was the value proposition with the Dead.

AB — 16 May 2010

I was astonished to learn today that the lyrics to the 1960s hit “Louie Louie” are not obscene, as we speculated endlessly as teenagers. (See “What are the REAL lyrics to ‘Louie Louie’?” on The Straight Dope.)

The KingsmenAccording to The Wacky Top 40, by Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo, The Kingsmen, who recorded the song in 1963, were surprised to learn that people thought they heard obscene lyrics when listening to the song. The group’s drummer is quoted as saying, “At one time we saw 35 different copies of the lyrics and they were all completely different, depending on what part of the country you were from.”

He says the lyrics were so hard to understand because the lead singer was too far away from the microphone in the recording studio.

According to The Straight Dope, the author of the song, Richard Berry, told an interviewer that the song is meant to be “the lament of a seafaring man, spoken to a sympathetic bartender named Louie.”

It’s a beautiful, touching song. Here are the actual lyrics, as given in the Dr. Demento lyrics database:

Louie Louie
by Richard Berry

Louie Louie

Oh no, me gotta go.

Louie Louie

Oh baby, me gotta go.

A fine little girl, she wait for me,

Me catch the ship across the sea.

I sailed the ship all alone,

I never think how I’ll make it home.

Louie Louie

Oh no, no, no, me gotta go, oh no

Louie Louie

Oh baby, me gotta go.

Three nights and days I sailed the sea.

Me think of girl constantly.

On the ship I dream she there.

I smell the rose in her hair.

Louie Louie

Oh no, me gotta go, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Louie Louie

Oh baby me gotta go.

(Okay, let’s give it to ’em right now!)

Me see Jamaica moon above.

It won’t be long me see me love

Me take her in my arms and then

I tell her I’ll never leave again.

Louie Louie

Oh no, me gotta go

Louie Louie

Oh baby, me gotta go.

I said we gotta go,

Let’s get on outta here.

Let’s go.

AB — 7 May 2010

I was happy to find a YouTube version of this Kodak ad from about 1963. I’m not sure why a 12-year-old would understand how it feels to watch your children grow up, but I remember I used to cry watching this ad.

I would have to say this is good advertising — makes a strong emotional connection with the viewer and an excellent tie-in to the product. Until today, I hadn’t seen this ad for over 40 years, but I still remembered that it was for Kodak.

Interestingly, the ad is two minutes long. I understand that the song “Turn Around” is by songwriter Malvina Reynolds.

AB — 7 April 2010

Since I started using TiVo a few years ago, I’ve been impressed time and again by the extent to which the digital video recorder (DVR) changes the experience of television — it can open up the “long tail” of TV in amazing ways (see Chris Anderson’s 2006 Wired article, “The Long Tail,” for an explanation of what that means).

For me, the latest example is VH1’s occasional show, “Classic in Concert,” which I never would have learned about had it not been for my practice every so often of reviewing all upcoming shows in TiVo’s alphabetical list.

“Classic in Concert” televises videos of live concerts, some recent, some quite old. Many of them have no interest to me (KISS, ZZ Top) and can go right in the trash. But recently I did enjoy watching concerts by Blind Faith and Brian Wilson, which were well worth the viewing time.

Following are some notes on those concert videos. Unfortunately, “Classic in Concert” appears to have no web home, so there’s nothing great I can find to link to, other than some YouTube videos of doubtful provenance.

Blind Faith’s 1969 Hyde Park Concert

This was a fascinating archaeological treasure, a movie of what might have been the world’s first glimpse of the collaboration between Eric Clapton post-Cream and Steve Winwood post-Traffic (Winwood later returned to Traffic).

Blind Faith also included percussionist Ginger Baker and bassist Ric Grech. I was surprised to learn that Ginger Baker is still alive — guess he got away with it. Grech died in 1990, according to his Wikipedia bio.

I’ve never paid a lot of attention to Steve Winwood, but the video has helped me put a face to the haunting voice in the recordings of Blind Faith and Traffic. I never realized what an enormous mouth he has, but he does well with it.

In the Hyde Park video, Clapton seems subdued and keeps to the background. That fits with what his Wikipedia bio says — apparently Clapton felt that the concert was premature and that Blind Faith hadn’t practiced enough:

[Clapton] thought that the band’s playing was sub-par and that the adulation was undeserved and reminiscent of his Cream days when the crowds would applaud for nearly everything. Clapton, knowing the band had not rehearsed enough and was unprepared, was reluctant to tour and feared that the band would develop into a Cream repeat.

The music is indeed pretty rough — you can tell the group was relatively unpracticed — and Winwood is often off-key. Even so, it’s fun to see.

Clapton has some great videos on his official web site, but nothing of Blind-Faith vintage. Here’s a YouTube video of “Can’t Find My Way Home” as performed at the Hyde Park concert.

Brian Wilson’s Live Redo of Pet Sounds

The other video I watched recently on “Classic in Concert” was a live performance (2003 in London, I believe) of music from the Beach Boys’ 1966 album Pet Sounds.

Now in his 60s, I think Wilson can be forgiven for being a little off-key and no longer able to hit the high notes. Heck, Stevie Winwood was even more off-key at Hyde Park when he was 21. It’s inherent in the live-concert venue — you’re never going to get the perfection of a studio recording.

The band Wilson uses in the concert does a good job of reproducing the classic Beach-Boys sound, although some of its members might have had great-grandparents in the audience.

In some brief interview comments at the end of the video, Wilson reflects on the Beach Boys’ competition with the Beatles during the late 1960s. He compares Pet Sounds to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — a dubious comparison, in my opinion. While it might be true that the two groups were in competition for raw popularity at the time, I would be hard-pressed to rank Wilson’s output with the innovative genius of the Lennon-McCartney collaboration.

Much as I enjoyed the video, I’m not wild about the Pet Sounds music. However, the concert does include beautiful versions of Wilson’s arrangement of the traditional “Sloop John B.” and his song “Good Vibrations” (which was from Smile rather than Pet Sounds). At the time it came out, I thought of “Good Vibrations” as just another me-too psychedelic release. But over the years, I’ve come to appreciate it much more, and I now regard it as a masterwork and a great composition.

Brian Wilson has some fine recent concert videos on his official web site. From NPR’s article “Brian Wilson in Concert,” you can listen to a 2008 live recording.

AB — 3 February 2010

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