Behind the curtain at the magic show
Of course, most people admit that the Beatles had their off days, and some songs sound more labored than others. ("Bungalow Bill"? Not one of your better efforts, boys. Sorry.) But still, I think I've always believed deep down that when they wrote the good stuff, like "Penny Lane," or "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," it poured out of them effortlessly. On the good days, all the planets aligned for them, stars shone from their foreheads and the ground they walked on exploded with rainbow flowers.
If you start to wonder, as I have lately, what really happens when geniuses create, then you have to leave that fantasy behind. How do artists do what they do? What’s the process? Do I have any kind of art inside me? Can I be creative and happy at the same time? Have my beliefs about how artists work held me back instead of helping me? These questions led me to do something I had never wanted to do before: I started listening carefully to bootlegs of the Beatles’ recordings sessions that trace the construction of their songs. Essentially, I chose to peek behind the curtain at the magic show and study how the rabbit gets into the hat in the first place.
Upending my ideas about how art gets made
In the past month or so I’ve listened to hours of Beatles bootlegs during my drive to work. I’ve heard the process behind everything from the making of their earliest album, which was not much more than an efficient run-through of their live act, to the rather lackadaisical experiments of the White Album. In part, listening to these rough drafts and practice sessions has reinforced my belief that the Beatles were very good at what they did and often did it very quickly. They did create indelible pop songs with spot-on harmonies and inventive arrangements when they had a couple of hours of studio time squeezed between TV appearances, press conferences, film sessions and live shows. They worked brilliantly under pressure in those early days, cooking up songs like "Hard Day’s Night" and "Help" in just a few hours of writing and recording.
So, yes, in many cases these tapes reinforced my idea the Beatles were popstar Supermen. But within this collection of bootlegs there was one series in particular that upended my thoughts about how the Beatles worked and, by association, how it is possible for any creative person to work. That is the series of recordings which John Lennon made for himself as he wrote one of his best-known songs, "Strawberry Fields Forever."
A few short phrases and a fairly monotonous melody
The finished record of "Strawberry Fields" turned out to be an unusually adventurous piece of music, but that's not why these tapes are especially fascinating. Unlike most Beatles songs, "Strawberry Fields" was recorded from the earliest stages of its creation. In the professional recording studio, time is money, so you don’t turn on the mikes until you’ve got something more or less ready to show everyone else. But John was recording these Strawberry Fields tapes for himself, alone, on a portable reel-to-reel recorder. If most of the Beatles bootlegs are like listening in to a run-through of a puppet show, this set of tapes shows a puppetmaker just beginning to make one puppet's arms and legs.
With his home tape recorder running, we hear John playing over and over the slimmest wisp of a song, strumming his guitar, trying on different words and notes. The words of the song are hardly formed, the tune is just a sketch. The phrase "Strawberry Field," the name of a Salvation Army children's home in the neighborhood where he grew up, doesn’t even show up right away.
In this early version of the song, the first line is "No-one I think is in my tree, it must be too high or too low." If you’re not a Beatles fanatic, that line may sound senseless or trivial, but in the world of Lennon-speak it’s revealing. John often said that these words sum up his belief that he must be either "a genius" or "crazy," because no-one seemed to be on the same wavelength as he was.
The line about his tree stays much the same for quite a long time, until he changes it slightly to improve the meter. He plays the chords, sings to himself, tests things out, starts and stops, changes the words, drops ideas and keeps others. If you had been in his room that afternoon you might have felt you would go crazy from the repetition of these few short phrases with a fairly monotonous melody.
Yet as I listened to these tapes, I realized with a start that I recognized this process, that this is something I do. The idea that I might have something in common with the great John Lennon was a shock to me. But clearly, John’s process in these tapes resembles what I do when I’m starting to write poetry or prose or lyrics. I use a pen to fill a blank page with words, phrases, arrows, rhymes, doodles. When one page is full I go on to the next blank sheet and generate more ideas. I might write the same string of words several times in a row just to see if something new pops out at the end. Only much later do I start to circle the things that seem to stick or call out to me with special power.
I had thought this tentative process, my process, was the one exercised by less talented people, unconfident people like me who can’t get it right the first time. But here is John Lennon doing just that: he’s got a hunk of nearly shapeless musical clay and he’s pushing it around. He’s not entirely sure what he wants it to look like, but he’s using free association, repetition and improvisation to put out a lot of possibilities and see which he likes. He’s certainly not hung up on how lame his song sounds in these early stages or quitting in frustration because it’s not as good as a song by one of his musical idols.
I wish that someone could have made it clear to me when I was growing up that this kind of groping, reaching, shaping process is perfectly all right. The only discussion of the creative process that I recall in school was reading in one of those American Lit textbooks that Sherwood Anderson claimed he wrote each story of Winesburg Ohio "complete in one sitting." Since I didn’t even really like Sherwood Anderson much, the conclusion I drew was that even a middling-talent writer could do things pretty well on the first go-round. Not like me.
It's okay to dump words on paper
It's okay to dump words on paper
Maybe Sherwood Anderson did write each chapter in one sitting -- it’s possible -- we all know Mozart wrote sublime music as easily as breathing. It doesn’t really matter whether Anderson was stretching the truth or not. What does matter is that prodigies are not the best model to hold up to young people. I don’t think anyone showed me the rough drafts, the missteps, the unshaped clay that precede most works of art. I never heard that it was okay to dump words on paper and shape them later. It’s taken me a long time to find out that it’s the willingness to knead and mold and shape my initial ideas that makes up 90 percent of the creative process.
As I spend more time writing these days, I have the luxury of not caring whether I'm conventionally "successful" or not. The "success" that I want right now is to do the best writing I can in a happy frame of mind.