Jimi Hendrix Could Never Have Played This
Jimi Hendrix could never have played what eight-year-old Zoe Thomson plays on a YouTube video currently about to reach 7 million views. But hundreds of thousands of six- and seven- (and, for all I know, three- and four-) year-old girls and boys scattered throughout the four corners of the earth can. I didn’t search high and low to find the clip. It was the first one that showed up on YouTube after I typed in “Six-year-old Bosnian girl playing heavy metal” and hit search. Countless other clips are even more impressive. Believe me, there are toddlers out there who’d leave poor Zoe in the dust, fumbling like Eric Clapton.
As cute as it may be for a tot to shred note-perfectly through a nugatory musical exercise, it represents an extreme example of the argument against “doing it right.” Anybody, given time, patience, and proper equipment (which would include any device that lets you copy by watching someone else do it in slow motion) will be able to do it right. In a ceaselessly accelerating learning climate, doing it right—the process of technical assimilation and perfection—takes less time, is easier, and more common than ever.
Nowadays everybody is good: it’s the entry-level requisite for acceptable participation. So, good is now average. And average is useless. Why would anyone aspire to become average, even if that meant doing it right? Even if it meant being a devalued “good” at something?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with being good at something. Even if your intention is to try to make it new, doing it right gives you one additional option. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a skillful craftsperson or of mastering technique. The snag is that if that’s the direction you decide to take, and it represents anything more than a starting point, your work will always be dispensable. Doing it right might be viable as long as you’re not just doing it right.
And there’s nothing wrong with admiring something for its having been done right or for its capacity to entertain you. But any work that makes it new—whether or not it’s done right—can elicit much more than admiration and enjoyment. “A job well done” is genuine praise for plumbers and electricians, but it’s a backhanded compliment for anyone trying to produce serious art.
(I’m not making a hierarchical judgment here; we need plumbers and electricians and want them to do it right, not necessarily to make it new. And, while I’m on the subject, I’ll mention two more exceptions to what I’m arguing. First, I’m 100% with Carlo in the view that doing it right in current-era professional boxing has it all over making it new. Boxing can no longer be made new in any way except ineptly, and ineptitude in boxing isn’t ever justifiable, since it will lead instantly to serious injury or death. Second, Bill Birdsall, whose contribution you can read elsewhere in this folio, built his house and its surrounding buildings in styles that are both new and highly exploratory, but they’re also really safe. I realize that this may also weaken my argument, but doing it right is essential to any architecture that needs to be functionally safe. Unless your intention is to make some kind of nihilistically subversive political statement, even the most groundbreaking of “make it new” buildings shouldn’t be designed to collapse while people are on top of, inside, or underneath them.)
Innovation isn’t just the First Word in a form, it’s also the Last. Innovators obviate much of whatever they bring into play by fully articulating a system that once spoken never needs repeating. Whatever follows directly from it that has been done right will always suffer by comparison.
A word about the definition of “follows” as used here: annexing language as vocabulary and extracting intent as a type of meaning don’t constitute following per se. Language and intent are available tools, even if your goal is to make it new.
Using innovative material in any other way is dealing in used-up information. It’s trespassing. And, depending on who you are, from where you’re lifting your material, and how you benefit from it compared to the person who has a genuine claim to it, this can be a troublingly inequitable thing.
Social Leveling and Bullying
At its most pernicious, doing it right lobbies in favor of popularizing—and helping to move experience to—the middle, that safe haven of unchallenging accessibility. Doing it right provides a platform for Ken Burns and Wynton Marsalis, for Philip Roth and Annie Leibovitz, for Tom Hanks and Willie Nelson, for Quentin Tarantino and Twyla Tharpe, for Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and others in this dime-a-dozen cohort who have learned to do it right in very modest and always derivative ways, and who are somehow taken seriously as artists for their questionable achievements.
Doing it right—at least adherence to doing it right—is by definition playing by the rules. But art at least, in the largest sense, has no rules. There are no consequences for fucking it up. If you insist that doing it right is the Coin of the Realm, you have imposed a delicate tyranny over what is possible. Unless it’s no more than one of numerous factors making up your work, you have abandoned risk.
It’s worth taking a look at playing by the rules, since those rules exert pressure to do it right and absolve the work that comes from having done it. Like everything in history, in the end the rules are determined by the winners. What does “do it right” mean under those terms? Rules often come from an interest in controlling standards in order to enlarge a potential audience. Rules can also be used to attract targeted groups while keeping others at bay. Doing it right can be a kind of aesthetic jerrymandering.
When Ken Burns talks about jazz—a word that he apparently owns the copyright to—his imprimatur is seen by many as having the historical weight of fact. PBS describes it as “Ken Burns tells the story of jazz.”
Here’s how Burns describes that story: “We made it to please a broad national audience, because this is our birthright. This is who we are. This is the celestial music of America. And I want a little old lady in Dubuque to tap her toes to all of this stuff.”
Let’s take Burns’ xenophobia off the table; the list of things he’s fucked up is already long enough without it.
Jazz was originated by black people for black people. It is not “our birthright” or “who we are,” assuming we are Ken Burns. I have no idea what “the celestial music of America” is supposed to mean.
Charlie Parker elected to speak an arcane and exclusionary language—much faster, more rhythmically and harmonically complex, and with more insider references than what preceded it—meant to kick you off the bandstand: “This is not for you.” His work was designed—among other reasons—to keep a little (presumably white) old lady in Dubuque from tapping her toes to “all of this stuff.”
But guess who jazz history tells us all of this “stuff” was made for? Start tapping, Granny. Tough luck, Jelly Roll Morton, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy, and Albert Ayler. Thanks for the education, Ken. Thanks, PBS. Thanks, Wynton.
It Doesn’t Matter If It’s 100 Years or 10 Minutes
Something that has been made new is of its time—although it often seems not to be—even as it stands outside of time in perpetuity. Doing it right consigns whatever the “it” is to being behind its time, even when it appears to be the hottest thing of the moment. The way that doing it right masquerades as being current is why making something new causes it to appear ahead of its time.
Nothing can be ahead of its time. No one who is serious about what they’re doing ever thinks about making their work ahead of its time. If that’s what you were trying to do, your work would be junk.
If you have come up with something that really is new, you have willed into currency something that crashes headfirst into its time.
At the Risk of Being Immodest…
I’m going to talk about myself a little bit. For over fifty years I’ve heard that I’m a fraud as a musician. Whether those saying it are right doesn’t matter much; everyone is free to come to their own conclusion about that. In my playing, I’ve always gone to great lengths not to do it right—to try to painstakingly omit any gratuitous use of previously established material. What remains after all that excision can easily be heard as solipsistic nonsense: some showoff playing a bunch of really fast and loud random notes nonstop for an hour.
Almost everyone who has questioned my legitimacy has reversed their opinion if they’ve watched me sight-read a Prokofiev or Ives piano sonata, heard me wind my way through abstruse chord changes or time signatures in a contemporary jazz piece, dig into a montuno behind a timbale solo as part of a Salsa orquesta, or accompany a tenor singing Puccini or a cabaret performer doing selections from Harold Arlen or Cole Porter.
Apparently running that gauntlet proves to any Doubting Thomas that I can do it right. But for me the important question, the generative question that could lead to genuine innovation, is What if I couldn’t? Ornette Coleman used to say, “The notes don’t care what you call them. They just notes.”
If I played the same hour of fast, loud notes without having also proved that I could “do it right,” would their value be any different? They would sound identical. They just notes.
What to Take/What to Leave Alone
Evan Parker mentioned to me in conversation that he has sometimes been compared to John Coltrane, adding, “As if I could ever be John Coltrane.” That seems exactly the point: recognizing that there could only be one John Coltrane is one of many things that has kept Evan from becoming ensnared in imitation. Bringing to his work Coltrane’s available language and elements of his spirit, Evan is able to make it new—a Coltrane continuator perhaps in the way of Dolphy to Charlie Parker—significantly adding to the vocabulary of the instrument, and both closing and opening possibilities for the next saxophonist to make it new.
Good slides away fast; even bad lasts longer. Something new—great or awful, if those flexible terms matter at all—has the chance to stay with you. Stripped of innovation, doing it right lacks the two vital elements of cultural context (sociological, economic, political, etc.) and (auto)biography that would allow it to be more than the product of very hard work done in pursuit of a clever iteration of something already done better. Doing it right is making a conscious decision to favor architecture over meaning; it is investigating the plausibility of presenting someone else’s work as your own.
Language—the one thing available to everyone from its moment of innovative introduction—never factors in as a great achievement in the valuation of “good” work. Language is something that has already been handed to you, free to use once you’ve acquired it. Experts of craft shouldn’t kid themselves that they’ve accomplished anything more than the mastery of something that can be learned through diligent practice.
Why accept the format? Why even make your goal doing it right if—aside from the possible satisfaction of achieving “a job well done”—doing it right produces no collateral resonance?
On an already glutted planet where every mode of creative work is traffic-jammed to the point of immobility, making it new—born of a longing to break out some space and freedom—opens up some breathing room (until it is once again filled in by the race to add “good” work to it).
Bear with me; this will be circuitous. When I was about sixteen, I played piano at a private birthday party for the movie producer Joseph E. Levine, who was sixty-two at the time—six years younger than I am now—and who seemed ancient to me. He spent the first few hours of his own party sleeping in one of the upstairs bedrooms while his guests kept up an endless chatter about him: Joseph E. Levine was upstairs. Joseph E. Levine would be coming down soon. Joseph E. Levine was a big as they get in Hollywood. Joseph E. Levine had just made The Graduate.
When the Great Man finally made his way sleepily down the stairs, he was surrounded by people who had important things to tell him. Each guest vied for his attention, pitching something or other to him. I’ve seldom seen anyone less interested in being where he was than Joseph E. Levine was at his own birthday party. He had heard every conceivable pitch before—they were all variations of the same pitches—he had seen everything he was ever going to see, and he was done.
That’s how I feel now. I’m trying to figure out what might be at the heart of it. Here’s what I’ve come up with: I’ve used up my free junk-space in order to accommodate work done right. Having to put up with things done right—good work, all—is part of what’s drained from me the ability to receive joy and its black-sheep cousins, outrage and shock. Like the tired Joseph E. Levine, I’ve seen and heard it all before, and my capacity for tolerance has been reached. I’m not trying to foist my ennui entirely onto others; I’ve heard and read everything I’ve played and written before, too. That’s on me.
Making it new is the only antidote for all this. Making it new wakes you up, jumpstarts you, and hints at other directions things can go, other paths you can take. Significantly, it helps re-illuminate the quotidian: seeing something that has been made new triggers revivified appreciation of the people, animals, trees and plants, buildings, advertisements you pass on the street, and this process of jolting your faculties back into action might carry over to your own life and work.
Admittedly, this process reduces to simplistic formula something that is unwieldy and imprecise. You’re not going to become a perpetually creative force by experiencing an ongoing supply of things made new. But it makes sense to accept good fortune where you find it.
Where the Southern Crosses the Dog
The Southern and the Yazoo Delta, aka the Yellow Dog, are two trains that converge in Moorhead, Mississippi, the place of blues legend where-the-southern-crosses-the-dog. This has always seemed like a heart-stopping image for when doing it right meets making it new at the junction. For me when doing my work, this propitious timing happens only rarely—as an offshoot of when I am thinking architecturally while my hands are firing on all cylinders. When things have reached that point, I can then sometimes shift over to no-thought mode, leaving me free to make leaps that I would otherwise know were impossible. I’ll make them anyway, and they will work. It makes you wonder: is making it new an act of imaginative faith?
A Big Word
Every morning I walk Nico at the Bowen School playground. Often, we run into Masha, who walks Dante, who follows closely behind Nico, and Masha and I make small talk while the two tiny dogs make their rounds. Today, I was telling her about the trouble I was having writing this piece, trying to frame my position.
After I’d given her a general sense of the various viewpoints likely to be presented, she asked me, “So what does ‘make it new’ consist of?”
“It’s about telling the truth…” I started to say.
“Truth. What a big word for a man to say.”
Right. A big word. Too big a word. Let me try to dial it down.
In reading Jaime Lowe’s remarkable book Mental, I was struck by how activity brought on by bipolar mania parallels the impulse to make something new. Mania, if I’m understanding it right, largely plays out in the pursuit of big ideas that, at the time you’re chasing them, seem absolutely accomplishable by you and only you. This might well be seen as grandiose thinking in the way that believing yourself capable of making it new can be interpreted as a kind of grandiosity. Is someone who is dedicated to producing only the new inherently grandiose? I don’t know. Maybe.
I do think that if you take good and bad out of the equation, there might be an argument against the goal of making it new being a grandiose one.
There’s also the notion that work—the kind of work that comes from putting one foot in front of the other most of the way—modifies the kind of magical thinking associated with grandiosity. That there is an element of magical thinking involved—that tipping point that is arrived at by coming through hard work—again muddies the water a little bit.
Ultimately, it may be the acknowledgement that making it new springs from someone else having done something surpassingly well before you—something you are not capable of doing in any other than technical ways—that vouches for making it new as not necessarily an exercise in self-reverence.
There’s something valuable in commingling your life with your work so that what you produce is more a factor of what you’ve seen and felt and heard and lived than an exercise of academic rigor or idiomatic appropriation. What you produce is not just an entertainment.
I often imagine the dog’s rounds as an antidote for grandiosity. Separated from his leash, the dog takes his fresh mobility to every alleyway and path, alert to the half-life vibrancy of brick, glass, wood, and stone. That’s making it new, stripped of affect.
Let’s Say That You’re a Stone
and you are not an empty vessel that might be filled up with rainwater or garbage or memories or ideas or anything else that takes you from your stone-ness and keeps you from feeling the sun or the breeze or the rain—but none of these are anything other than sun or breeze or rain: they don’t mean anything—and so you remain a stone until you are worn away and become whatever you become or until you become nothing if there is nothing to become. You didn’t do it right. You didn’t do it at all. Every moment was new. You always made it new or it was always made new or it was always new or you were always new even though you were always there until you were not.
Charles Farrell has spent his professional life moving between music and boxing, with occasional detours. His book (Lowlife): A Memoir of Jazz, Fight-Fixing, and The Mob, will be published in July, 2020.