Saturday, June 25, 2011

Canes do not grow to the center of the plant

I don’t know how roses grow.
I’ve never selected a gawky shrub,
All sticks and thorns and angles,
Stumpy and brown, in a burlap sack.
I’ve never planted my heel on the shoulder of a shovel,
Turning the dirt to make room for a rootball.
I’ve never watched like a hawk
For the midges and thrips who suck the green juices of the budding leaves.

And so
If I admire
The carelessly exploding armful
You brought
Today, for me -- these roses --
The deep cupped petals of color now tumbled across the perfect black sheen of the piano
What I mean to say is

Thank you for being you.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Strawberry Jam

In the Beatles' film Yellow Submarine, there is a lovely scene in which John, Paul, George and Ringo walk through a blank white landscape, clapping their hands and singing as a forest of fantastic flowers springs up in their wake. That scene perfectly captures my sense of their magical creativity, the delicious ease of their genius. Where Beatles gather, magic happens, so the fan believes.

For most of their career, the Beatles' marketing machine promoted the group as if that cartoon image were true, as if the group were a kind of four-headed demigod, spilling over with great ideas and high spirits. It wasn’t in their interests to inform their fans about false starts, the rough drafts, the ideas that didn't pan out. A fan might easily believe that Paul McCartney rolled out of bed one morning, went to the piano and started playing a tune he had heard in a dream called "Yesterday." Oh, wait, he did do that. Well, I don't think I was the only fan who wanted to believe that every Beatles song had an immaculate conception just like that.

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.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Heaven on Earth

Poster by Marcus Thomas
Speaking loosely, my version of “heaven on earth” is listening to my favorite musicians as I sit on a blanket on the lawn of a beautiful park on a balmy evening. A dear companion would complete my joy. A bottle of wine is nice, too. For many of the last twenty years I’ve enjoyed this musical heaven in September at the Connecticut Folk Festival, under the stars in New Haven’s Edgerton Park.

Because I loved those annual concerts in the park, when the Folk Festival founders asked me to join the Board of Directors, I stepped right up. I treasured the Festival and didn’t want to see it fade away. So for the last five years or so, my Festival experience has not been one blissful night of listening to music but instead a year-long cycle of making it happen: helping with grant writing, marketing, publicity, all the hard slog of selling an idea.

With eleven months of work invested in the Festival, you would think that the day of the concert would be the high point of the year for me. Actually, once I was officially on the Board, Festival day made me feel like a very high fiddle string being stretched to the breaking point.