Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Mystery of Talent Part II: Writers

How to account for Buddy Holly's "Well . . . All Right" and "Learning the Game"?

"Well . . . All Right" destroys the stale myth that early white rock n'rollers did nothing but rip-off black r&b artists. The recording sounds distinctly European, reminding me of Renaissance dances I've heard played on archaic instruments. The melancholy "Learning the Game" is straight ballad-- it could've been played in medieval times.

We can speculate that Buddy Holly, like other country "hillbilly" singers such as the Carter Family, Hank Williams, the Everly Brothers, even Elvis Presley, inherited remnants of a folk tradition brought over from England centuries prior-- just as black blues performers carried remnants of folk sounds from Africa; blended of course in both cases white and black with their reactions to the New World. (Rock n' roll was created when these two traditions collided.)

The biggest mistake so-called "experts" on art make is to underrate the role of instinct in its creation. Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly were instinctive artists who'd been soaking in their regional culture (and popular culture on the radio) their entire lives. By age 20 they'd learned everything they needed to know to become two of the greatest interpreters of popular music this nation has produced.

Should they have been sent to Julliard?

When they met the experts, their art suffered. It's well-known what happened to Elvis when he was cleaned-up and tamed by RCA and the movie studios (and the army). Holly encountered a similar fate when he dropped mentor Norman Petty and band the Crickets to move to New York. His last studio session produced his worst recordings since his first crude rockabilly efforts. Awful junk. Studio strings replaced his masterful guitar! Unbelievable. The experts had no idea what to do with Buddy Holly. (The recordings he made in his apartment on an Ampex tape recorder before his death showed he hadn't lost his talent.)
The biggest mistake this culture makes with artists of all kinds is to overemphasize schooling. We're a machine civilization which stresses order, regulation, and schooling. Too much schooling destroys natural talent. The more I hear about writing workshops, the more convinced I become about how damaging they are. Hit from all sides, the young writer can only become disheartened and confused. Maybe these programs are okay for those with marginal talent. For the phenom they could be disastrous. (And sorry, Jonathan Safran Foer isn't my idea of a phenom.)

Why do we think writers should be different from musicians? Many people, by the time they're 20, have been reading and writing for well over a decade; precociously absorbing and filtering the literary experience along with their experience of the world. The best of them, like Stephen Crane and Scott Fitzgerald-- America's two best natural talents-- by this age are already prepared to be great. They should be promoted, encouraged, advised, directed-- but their instinct and genius must oversway all; they must be allowed to run free.

(Part III: The Future of Literature.)
(Also Coming: "Overrated James Wood.")

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