Saturday, 5 January 2013

Catching Up

The long, dark evenings of winter, especially over the Christmas and New Year holiday period, have given me the chance to watch more TV and so catch up on things I may have missed. It is apparent that I have missed much more than I imagined - and I'm not just talking about the programmes.
Here is a good example. Back in 1967 I saw The Beatles short film called Magical Mystery Tour which, I have to admit, I didn't really 'get' at the time. Despite being a big fan of their records, the film seemed to me to be at cross-purposes with their artistic direction. But having just watched a documentary about the making of the film, followed by a showing of it, everything at last makes sense (sort of) and I can appreciate now that they were trying to achieve something more than just making popular records. My original failure to grasp the concept of their film was due to the fact that my expectations of their future output were based on my experience of their previous output; or, to put it simply, my imagination had failed to keep pace with theirs. There are, no doubt, many gifted people who 'got it' first time but I, it seems, just liked their tunes.
And those who don't 'get it' are condemned to the wilderness of unenlightenment.  'Real' artists don't feel the need to explain their work: they leave it to professional critics to analyse and interpret while they themselves revel in the mystique of creativity and get on with the business of staying one step ahead of the worker bees. This practice goes all the way back to the 5th Century BC, according to this limerick:
There once was a sculptor named Phidias
Whose manners in art were invidious
'Till he carved Aphrodite
Without even a nightie
And shocked those whose taste was fastidious.

As Pablo Picasso declared, "Taste is the enemy of creativeness". Those artists who abide by established conventions simply reproduce more of the same.

My lately acquired understanding of Magical Mystery Tour whetted my appetite for some more retrospection. Next on the programme was a biography of Roy Orbison. What did I really know about him apart from the facts that he had an amazing vocal range, wrote very unusual songs and fought a losing battle when it came to looking cool? He always stood outside of the mainstream of my interest but his artistic talent was indisputable. Well, I learned that he was a very nice human being, a modest man who was exceptionally talented and that the defining factor of his artistry was the unconventional structure of his songs. Picasso had hit the nail on the head.
By now I was getting curious about other artists I had under-appreciated in the past so when a programme devoted to David Bowie's performances came up I was on the sofa. I can actually remember where I was when I first saw a photo of Bowie (a very uninspiring place, as it happens). The image was arresting because he looked so different from any of the other musicians around at the time. He had an aura of glamour and I realised subsequently that his music depended on a degree of contrived theatricality. I preferred heads-down, no-nonsense musicians such as Stephen Stills, Roy Harper, John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett and others with a gritty disdain for glam-rock. And so I left Bowie for others to idolise.
Forty years later and the Bowie programme entertained but did not enlighten me. Apart from a few nerdy facts relating to writing and backing credits, I gained no insights. Relieved that I had not missed the artistic point, I was able to relax and admire his constantly transforming visual and musical act - and to become fixated by the progression over the years of his orthodontics. When it comes to Bowie, maybe I did 'get it' first time around.


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