What inspires us?
"Is there anybody going to listen to my story?" sang Joe Jackson when he visited Chicago this past month. An extraordinary composer and connoisseur of popular music, Mr. Jackson sat at the piano covering John Lennon's Girl, reminding us what every artist faces: will anyone hear them? Singing the song with a solo stride piano accompaniment, Mr. Jackson's rendition of that first line was a reminder that a great opening song lyric feels eternal. The melody can be song by anyone always.
Bjork's melodies cannot easily be sung by anyone else, as I was reminded last spring when I saw her exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. In the exhibition she offers her lyric notebooks, but nothing about these spare, handwritten words prepares one for Bjork's melodies. The words don't seem to have poetic potential until Bjork sets them aflame in Hyperballad: "I'm back at my cliff/still throwing things off/I listen to the sounds they make/on their way down/I follow with my eyes 'til they crash/imagine what my body would sound like/slamming against those rocks." Has there ever been music so playful and so tormented at the same time?
Playful can come to mind when thinking of The Beach Boys. Last summer I saw the recent film about Brian Wilson. While the "Love and Mercy" scenes about his time making the Pet Sounds album with the musicians known as the Wrecking Crew have been rightfully admired for their allowance of experimentation, there were two quieter scenes that stuck me, both with Brian at the piano.
One with his father at a spinet piano where he tentatively presents the song God Only Knows: "I may not always love you/But long as there are stars above you/You never need to doubt it/I'll make you so sure about it." The film allows you to hear the composition in what we imagine to be its first performance for another. The song's unusual and masterful chord progression is ruined by his father's bitterness. The scene captures Wilson's otherworldly sense of melody and harmony, but it's his father's response that one remembers: jealousy wrapped in ignorance and served with malice.
Later in the film, a much older and scarred Wilson plays an anonymous chord progression for his girlfriend on a grand piano. Sitting in an empty house, he tosses it off, but one wonders where the progression would go if he completes it. As portrayed by the actors Paul Dano and John Cusack, Wilson's genius comes across as so natural that one watches every reaction, inflection and experimentation with great curiosity: when does Wilson know he's found the heavenly sound that he needs to share with the rest of us? The chord progression hangs in the air in the empty room.
The "David Bowie is" exhibition that is touring the world presents a different question: to whom does the artist turn for inspiration? There is a long list of Bowie collaborators: Robert Fripp, Iggy Pop, Trent Reznor, Pat Metheny, Queen, Nile Rodgers, Kansai Yamamoto, Martin Scorsese, Brian Eno, Marc Bolan, Tilda Swinton... on and on. Yes, the exhibit reminds us that Bowie spent a lifetime reinventing himself. But the one constant is that collaboration is central to his creative experience. No lonely genius he, Bowie is a musical life force because he works with others to forge piercing melody, rhythm, fashion and cinema. Even Brian Wilson inspired Bowie. His cover of God Only Knows sits on YouTube alongside ones by Elvis Costello, Elton John, Mandy Moore and Michael Stipe, Andy Williams, She & Him, Norah Jones, and, my favorite, Rivers Cuomo.
Finally, there was a Johnny Marr show in 2015 that I will never forget. Marr is a musician of exceptional skill and sensibility. His show was fun, tight, surprising, and admirable. Known for his guitar playing with The Smiths, the show was a reminder that he is a rock and roll musician of the highest order, one who now valiantly takes to the microphone to sing songs that others have sung, but makes them his own through exceptional musicianship and poise. Marr's tour has been captured on a recently released disc called Adrenalin Baby. Some forget that he and Peter Buck (of R.E.M.) changed rock and roll in the 1980's. Their guitar lines still ring through the decades, but, more importantly, they knew their guitar playing was meant to support melody.
I will never forget 2015. It was a year of great change in my life, but its musical lessons made my life richer. Curious about genius, I was reminded of the role that inspiration plays for musicians. Whether from Manchester, Iceland, Hawthorne, Brixton, or Portsmouth, these musicians have inspired me for nearly half a century.