The dreaded “BLOCK”. It’s a mind-thing that plagues every creative person that ever was. Whether you are a writer, a scientist, an artist, or a business person, there comes a time when you reach for an idea and there’s nothing there. For some reason the well has gone dry. Not even mud comes up.
You are pounding on a stuck door that, for whatever reason, is closed and locked to you, a door that used to swing open easily at a touch. Your idea factory has been shut down and you can’t see anything but that fool door.
It is a frustrating time, especially when you are used to having ideas parading up and down like models on a runway at a fashion show. You can feel the eyes and expectations of all the people who are looking at you, watching and waiting for SOMETHING.
Hell! YOU expect something of yourself and it is just not jelling. ARGH!
There are many stories of how this one and that one overcame the BLOCK. Often being locked out of your idea factory seems to be a prerequisite of the Breakthrough, the beautiful time when all at once, after you’ve thrown yourself at a problem over and over again, some switch turns on and the light just shines on your bruised and battered self, bathing you in its glory.
The Universe has heard you. The sacrifices have been made and the price has been paid. Things start click-click-clicking and the row of dominoes that you’ve lined up start falling down and down and down into beautiful patterns all over the floor.
If you’re a brilliant genius of a Maker, the whole world changes then. Not just for you. For everybody.
In 1965, Bob Dylan (born Robert Allan Zimmerman) was exhausted and disheartened. He was the crowned prince of the protest folk song circle and the poet laureate of the counter-culture, famous for his serious lyrics on the serious topics of the day — wordy lines chanted over a bare-bone melody and accompanied by an acoustical guitar and maybe a harmonica.
Dylan had dropped out of the University of Minnesota to head straight to New York where he hung around Greenwich Village with his hero Woody Guthrie in the emerging folk music scene. He became a popular performer in the Village coffee houses and night clubs and his ability to compose his own melodies and lyrics at an amazing pace won the respect and admiration of his peers.
He quickly amassed an army of fans and was dubbed the Shakespeare of his generation. His fans apparently elected him “their” media mouthpiece.
It was not a role with which the songwriter was comfortable. By the time he was 24, Dylan had become quite vocal about his disillusionment. He was no longer certain, it seemed, that the counter-culture of the time could actually effect any kind of lasting change in the blatant injustices perpetrated in this old world.
STANDING ON THE EDGE
Dylan had just returned to America after a grueling, four-month solo acoustical tour that spanned the Northeast and the West Coast of America before crossing the ocean to Europe and ending in England.
He was physically spent. One commentator said he looked like an “underfed angel.” He was mentally depleted after months and months of being crammed in with crowds of people always around him, always needing him to do something.
By the very end of the tour everybody knew that Dylan was feeling pushed and overwhelmed, struggling just to soldier on through the nonstop gotta-do dance, getting it all done and done and done.
He retreated to a little cabin in Woodstock, New York, and he swore that he was done, totally tapped out. He was teetering on the verge of quitting. He told his manager he was going to spend his time at Woodstock “writing a novel.”
CATHARSIS IN PROGRESS
While on tour Dylan had begun compulsively writing what he later called “this long piece of vomit.” It was, among other things, a diatribe and excoriation of the illusions and delusions of his generation. At Woodstock the word-vomit continued to pour out.
In a 1966 interview, Dylan told journalist Jules Siegel, “It wasn’t called anything, just a rhythm thing on paper all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest. In the end it wasn’t hatred, it was telling someone something they didn’t know, telling them they were lucky.”
“I had never thought of it as a song,” he told Siegel, “until one day I was at the piano, and on the paper it was singing “How does it feel?” in a slow motion pace, in the utmost of slow motion.” The impulse to write his poetry was reborn.
From that first wild and wooly outpouring, Dylan extracted and crafted four verses and the chorus of “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song that was a radical departure from anything he had ever written before. It was also very different from the popular songs of the day.
For one thing, the lyrics were brooding, nuanced and ambiguous. The lines did not insist on making sense, but somehow they “felt” right. The music itself could not be easily categorized.
Sometime after the song took the music world by storm, British music critic Michael Gray would describe the resulting track as “a chaotic amalgam of blues, impressionism, allegory and intense directness in the central chorus: How does it feel.”
MAKING IT MUSIC
A week after he’d arrived in Woodstock, Dylan’s new song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” was mostly finished and he headed off into the city to get the thing recorded. A bunch of musicians, most of whom had never played together or with Dylan, were brought into the cramped space of Studio A at Columbia Records.
None of the musicians had seen the song before. In fact, Dylan wasn’t even sure how he wanted it to sound. (The song had been written on an upright piano in the key of G sharp and was changed to C on the guitar in the recording studio.)
The musicians and the songwriter fooled around with the tempo and the instrument mix trying to make what they were doing match the music in the songwriter’s head and somehow the record’s producer Tom Wilson got the song cut on acetate.
It took two days and four very muddled takes plus lots of do-overs. The thing had a powerful, raucously edgy snarl of a sound. There were hot licks from an electrical guitar and major chords from an organ in it. By the time the song was cut, the backing musicians were just starting to learn their parts.
At almost six minutes, the recorded song was more than twice as long as most of the popular songs of the day, which were all less than three minutes long.
It was “different” and the difference was a cause for bean-counter concerns. The marketing and sales departments at the record company relegated the newborn song to the “graveyard of canceled releases.” The song was apparently stillborn.
THE “NO” THAT DIDN’T STICK
In the days following its rejection by the money guys, however, release coordinator for Columbia Records Shaun Considine, a Dylan fan-extraordinaire, took a discarded acetate of the song to a New York club “Arthur” – a newly opened disco popular with celebrities and media.
Considine asked a DJ to play the thing. The sophisticated music-lovers in the place were entranced. Here was something new. At the crowd’s insistence, the demo was played again and again until the vinyl finally wore out.
The next morning a disc jockey and a programming director from the city’s leading top 40 stations called Columbia Records and demanded copies of the song. The company caved in. Shortly afterwards, in late July, the song was released for sale as a single with “Gates of Eden” as its B-side.
Dylan performed the song live for the first time within days of its record release on July 25, 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. He and his backing musicians started to perform an uncertain rendition of their new single and were booed off the stage by the unappreciative crowd. It is a well-worn story retold by entire books.
The copies that the record company released to disc jockeys were truncated at first. Promotional copies had the first two verses and refrains on one side of the disk and the rest of the song on the other. DJ’s flipped the vinyl over to play the whole thing. The public demand dictated otherwise. Both Dylan and the fans wanted the whole, uninterrupted thing. Their wishes were met.
“Like a Rolling Stone” remained on the US charts for 12 weeks. The record reached number 2 behind the Beatles’ “Help” several weeks after its release. It was a Top 10 hit in other countries including Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and France.
BUZZ, BUZZ, BUZZ
The hoo-hah surrounding the song was massive. Reviewers and other experts as well as fellow musicians weighed in with their opinions about the effect of the song on the American and international music scene. Speculation was rampant about what the song “actually” meant and who was being referenced in the vitriolic and cynical but ultimately compassionate lyrics. The artist never “explained” his work. He wrote it. He had done his job.
Dylan’s contemporaries like John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Frank Zappa were in awe. They almost universally felt that the dark and brooding song went far toward freeing them from the saccharine and lightweight clichés of the tried-and-true same-old of the popular music of the time. The song simultaneously startled and challenged them.
Younger musicians who grew up with the song like Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello were tremendously influenced by it as well. With that one song Dylan rewrote the rules for popular music, more than one commentator said.
Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 by Bruce Springsteen, who said, “When I was 15 and I heard “Like a Rolling Stone,” I heard a guy who had the guts to take on the whole world and who made me feel like I had to too.”
Rock and roll had come into its own. Bob Dylan and “Like a Rolling Stone” led the way.
[Note: Anyone who would like to check out Bob Dylan’s music can have a lot of fun exploring https://www.discogs.com/artist/59792-Bob-Dylan. Discogs is a user-built database with information about artists, labels and their recordings. They’ve been around since 2000 and have an absolutely amazing collection of records and CD’s available.]
In the news this past week, 75-year old Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature by the Swedish Academy, touching off a bit of a controversy among assorted commentators. So far he has not responded to the news and continues on his latest tour.
ADVERSITY + EFFORT = BREAKTHROUGH
In his 2012 book, IMAGINE: How Creativity Works, science writer Jonah Lehrer re-tells the story of Dylan’s radical breakthrough and delineates how being stuck and frustrated and on the verge of giving up can result in new insight and major innovation. He calls the work that Dylan did to produce the song “a textbook example of how the imagination is unleashed by constraints.” (The emphasis is mine.)
Lehrer goes on to suggest that perhaps this possibility of achieving a breakthrough may be the reason why many poets deliberately choose to allow themselves to be limited by traditional poetic forms like haikus and sonnets that other poets from other times and places made up.
Trying to find the words that sparkle when they are fitted into these literary forms that have strict and obtuse rules and requirements can produce new ways of seeing that can transcend the hackneyed, easy clichés that surround us. It can imbue the work with meaning and mana.
As Lehrer puts it, “You break out of the box by stepping into shackles.”
In this TED talk video, “How Frustration Can Make Us More Creative,” English economist and journalist Tim Harford tells more stories about how being frustrated by challenges and life conditions does lead to greater creativity.
My own thinking on all of this is that just bravely facing that blank piece of paper is a mighty big challenge already, and getting those fool words to act right is a chancy thing. Muttering a lot helps. So does whining.
Here’s a poem….
Whenever confusion strikes
Making it hard to separate
The Real from the World,
I sit with pen in hand, thinking.
The blank page sticks out its tongue at me,
Troll-words limp and hobble,
Grunting and grousing as
They stumble out of their dark hovels.
I grab a few – just corral them as they pass.
Soon there’s a crowd of them,
Milling about and muttering,
Becoming a multitude.
The blank page slurps them up,
That jittery, jabbering throng.
It’s Godzilla attacking Tokyo
As the little guys scatter screaming….
Slash goes my deadly pen –
Cutting swaths through all the troll-word masses.
A few survive that onslaught,
A decidedly tattered crew.
More come stumbling out.
(There’s got to be a billion of them:
A rising tide that pops out of thin air –
Extra-dimensional travelers, all.)
If I can keep from drowning in that cacophony,
In the sound and the fury,
The clamor and the claptrap,
And if I’m really blessed, kissed by Lady Luck,
Maybe, just maybe,
I can touch that clarity that comes roaring up
Like the sun at dawn,
The one that turns the troll-words into stone.
(Sure is cool when it works!)
By Netta Kanoho
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