WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

God walks out of the room

The latest found object to change my life is this Vulture interview with Quincy Jones. As someone on Twitter put it, “It’s like Quincy Jones just got a note saying he was dying tomorrow and this would be his last interview.”

In other words, Q isn’t speaking through a filter this time. Lettin’ it all hang out.

Aside from a little veiled gossip about Hillary Clinton and some snarky darts aimed at Michael Jackson, The Beatles, and many others (everyone is described as “motherfucker,” including Ivanka Trump), the most righteous thing he talks about (beyond America’s genetic racism) is the pathetic state of music today. Everyone’s out for a quick buck and they don’t care about the art. As he says, when you have money on your mind while making music, “God walks out of the room.”

He talks about how John Coltrane knew his musical shit and was always studying. He carried around a copy of Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, culling from it a study almost verbatim that became “Giant Steps.” Coltrane was learning from Alban Berg. Q: “That’s as far out as you can get.”

In other words, the great artists of the past learned from past masters. Today they don’t bother. Maybe they sample a loop from someone who did his homework, then rap over it as if that’s some kind of accomplishment, but they don’t know their Slonimsky. No more of that 10,000 hours bullshit, right?

And from a particularly cynical point of view I can almost understand, Why do the work when you can make gobs of money without doing the work?

Which describes our era pretty well, I think.

It’s the same with writing, and I’ll even plead guilty to a certain extent. I’m definitely not as well read as I should be, especially in the Greek and Roman classics (though I do like me my Stoics). I see from the recent book, Why Bob Dylan Matters,  that he was up on that stuff. Virgil, Ovid. In the head, we’re not much different from the people of that era. Life and death are still a mystery. We still need to eat, sleep, and have sex. Plenty of relevance in their thoughts, and we can still learn from them.

But, as in music, which does have objective rules and principles and a massive backstory, you get the feeling most of our writers today are thinking about money when they write the books that get on the bestseller lists. You know what happens when they sit down to pound out that stuff, right?

God walks out of the room.

[Image via the Canadian Film Centre.]

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14 comments on “God walks out of the room

  1. kingmidget
    February 8, 2018

    Trying to figure out how to approach this … isn’t the problem that readers today don’t want to read anything that takes work. The vast majority of bestsellers are genre books — horror, legal thriller, spy thriller, etc. — that allows the reader to settle in comfortably because she knows what the book will be about before even starting to read. And, yes, writers who write for a living have to care about the money because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to write for a living. So, many writers sell their soul for the sake of their living.

    In addition, the simple reality is that most writers simply aren’t that talented. Give them a formula to follow and they can go from A to B to C. That the formula also appeals to readers is a side benefit. (And I don’t claim to be a talented writer — hell, how can I claim that when I don’t write much these days. But that I don’t need to write for a living means I can stretch my wings when I write and challenge myself with more challenging constructs. Double hell — as you know, my first effort when I was figuring out if I could write a story was a genre book!) It’s only after I wrote that book where I felt comfortable enough to try different things.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 8, 2018

      I guess there’s kind of a chicken and egg problem here. On one hand it seems like business caters to readers’ tastes. On the other it might have created readers’ tastes. All of the incentives are on the side of EZ Reading, so a writer has to be kind of nuts to put in the work and write literary material. If he wants to make money, that is.

      Funny, though. Every time a literary novel is made into a movie, the novel sells like gangbusters, so maybe the fault is in how publishers sell literary books.

  2. John W. Howell
    February 8, 2018

    Anyone who says writing is easy needs to study more. Super post, Kevin.

  3. pinklightsabre
    February 8, 2018

    I agree with both comments above: and it is interesting to consider Mark’s point, if I’m following him, that it’s also the dumbed-down reader that dumbs down the writer. Yuck, that’s a sour pill to consider. Does that apply to music, too? I don’t want to believe that but it’s compelling. Why is jazz kicked to the side now like it is? If I’m correct, I think it’s Quincy Jones who brought the band New Order back, helped them figure out how to bridge their former Joy Division side with something that would sell in the States, and fill up dance floors. Worked for me at frat parties in college, anyway. Perhaps that was “dumbed-down” (Joy Division). Now I’m depressed. I think it was.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 8, 2018

      It does seem like popular taste dictates everything now. Sad! I don’t follow pop music anymore because it all sounds alike to me, all the female singers, all the rappers. I can’t distinguish what makes one or another special or superior or even different. Ironic that the artists who do put in the work make the least money, like jazz players, classical artists. It’s the guys who put a song together in 10 minutes with computers who kick ass $-wise (and maybe you saw the thing about how Ed Sheeran made “Shape of You” like that). Not impressed.

      • pinklightsabre
        February 8, 2018

        No, not impressed either. Garbage in, garbage out. I try to stay true to my own brand of madness agnostic of money expectations; that has to be the best way. Joe Strummer said something like, the richest man in the world is the most unhappy man in the world. “Post that in Times Square.” Amen.

  4. 1WriteWay
    February 8, 2018

    I love that line — God walks out of the room. Perfect. I do think some “artists” are all about making money. Sure, they want to believe that they have talent too, but first and foremost is the money. No amount is too high and any amount is too low. I don’t blame readers entirely. I think a discriminating reader (such as myself 😉 ) would like both hard and easy books. I won’t get into arguing about genres because I think genres are not relevant in this discussion. Sometimes I want to be swept away for days at a time into another world, puzzling another conundrum of the human experience. Other days I just need a break, something easy and light, like meditation.There should be a variety of reading materials out there for all of us. It’s just you have these boilerplate books (yes I mean you, James Patterson) and they dominate the market because PUBLISHERS don’t want to provide their readers with anything but the same crap over and over. Patterson makes a tidy sum at what he does and a lot of people want to emulate him. So the reader–who might enjoy an occasional formulaic novel–winds up with nothing else. Unless she has the time and inclination to set forth on her own, to discover her own darlings … although who has time for that. And then we have the self-publishers who do the same thing and the readers drown. As a reader, I do get weary sorting through all the sameness out there.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 8, 2018

      And then I stumble upon a book like Joan Silber’s Improvement, which I just finished, and I have a little hope.

      Like I told Mark, though, I just wish publishers (and music labels) would support the serious work as much as they do the boilerplate stuff. A little would probably go a long way …

  5. Phillip McCollum
    February 8, 2018

    Well said, Kevin (and Q!).

    This is why I decided to pick up Homer a couple of years ago and dedicate much of my reading time to Francis Bacon, Yeats, and the Bronte sisters. It’s a nice way to escape the ‘cultural noise’ of today’s work. Not to discount modern stuff–one can’t stick their head in the sand if one hopes to at least make *some* living. But damn, them old folks was wise!

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 8, 2018

      Thanks, Phillip. Yes, I’ve been admiring your reading list for some time now. And feeling guilty. Back to my dusty copy of Lucretius now … 😉

  6. K.S. Schultz
    February 9, 2018

    I commented to my husband just the other day that the digitization of singing is the definition of a “generation gap”. It wasn’t so long ago that Prince belted out real emotion. Perhaps that is what is missing in mainstream music and writing – meaningful, soul-clenching emotion that speaks to our core. As a writer I will continue to dig deep and as a reader I’m grateful to authors who do the same. Inmusic, my taste now runs to the poorer Indie artists.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 9, 2018

      You’re so right about the abomination that is Auto-Tune. It’s like the voice became mere data to be manipulated, which sucks all the life out of it. I wonder what the equivalent in writing is … Grammarly?

      I’m also into indie bands, who are free from the corporate idea of what sells records. They’re obscure and don’t make any money, I guess, but they make the music they want to make. And a lot of it is terrific.

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This entry was posted on February 8, 2018 by in Music, Writing and tagged , , , .
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