The diminishment of creativity over time

Lately, in my truck, I’ve been listening to “The Union,” a CD put out by Leon Russell and Elton John. Speaking of gifts, my brother gave it to me last Christmas, but I only broke it out recently.

I’ve enjoyed it. It’s quite good. I’ve kept it in the player for weeks. I’ve even caught some of the tunes going through my head during the day. They worked well together, although their styles remain quite distinct. When you hear the opening piano chords, you know which voice you’re about to hear.

But… there’s this sadness I associate with it. Good as it is, it’s simply nothing like what both of them were producing in 1970 and ’71, and for a short time after that. I really enjoyed John’s work, from “Your Song” through “Tiny Dancer” on “Madman Across the Water.” As for the Master of Space and Time, I doubt that he had any bigger fan than I, back during the “Shelter People” period. “Stranger in a Strange Land,” for instance, remains an all-time favorite. And who else could have pulled off his show-stealing performance at the Concert for Bangladesh?

On that subject, Leon put on the most awesome show I saw live in the early ’70s, if ever. It was in Memphis. The opening: All the Shelter People were on stage, without Leon. There were two grand pianos. At one of them sat a black guy (who really music aficionados can probably name, although I cannot) rocking out in a gospel style (or so it sounded to my untrained ear), and the Shelter People — or whatever they were called at this point, essentially a “hippie commune bonafied” on tour — were energetically jamming along with him. The music built, and built, still without Leon. It had been going on about 10 minutes, it seemed, and everybody was pumped, and then… Leon stolled out on stage. He was wearing a white suit, with a white top hat, and playing a white Stratocaster. He ambled, back and forth, playing lead over the music… then he climbed up onto the second piano, and stood there with the guitar, rocking away. Finally, he climbed down, put down the Strat, and got serious. He sat at the second piano, and he and other pianist duelled away, with the other dozen or so other people on stage rocking along with them…

It was amazing. What a showman.

People get older. Their powers diminish. Certainly, their energies do. One great thing about being a musician, though, is that you generally retain the ability to make something beautiful, even if it lacks the power of what you did that made you a star, if you were a star.

I got to thinking about this yesterday when I saw a Tweet leading me to a thing about Kevin’s Smith’s movies, ranked from Worst to Best. There were 10 of them. Fortunately, it was not called a Top Ten list. You couldn’t even honestly come up with a Top Five from this guy’s work, not if you had taste. Basically, he had a Top One — “Clerks.” Some of you who think me a prig would be surprised that I even liked that, but it was really well done. The pottymouthed script was inventive, clever, as were the acting and the direction. Not even Jay and Silent Bob wore thin, for as long as the film lasted. It made you want to see more from this guy.

And then you did see more, and you wished you hadn’t. It’s probably a good thing he’s decided to desert his oeuvre and turn to more pedestrian, formula comedy (“Cop Out,” which this list placed last, but which was at least mildly amusing).

Kevin Smith is only 41. He was born when Elton John and Leon Russell were at their peak. But he peaked with one film.

That happens, with creativity. It’s a tragedy, when it deserts the young. Look at the Beatles. Of course, the Beatles were so amazingly improbable to begin with. How could anyone, so naturalistically, produce so much material that was that diverse, from year to year, and that appealing? It was inhuman. It was the sort of thing that in a different cultural context gives rise to dark mutterings about clandestine meetings at the Crossroads at midnight.

But it didn’t last. As they broke up, it looked as though it would. Lennon produced “Instant Karma;” McCartney gave us “Maybe I’m Amazed.” George Harrison seemed to explode, having been repressed, with “All Things Must Pass.”

And that was it. They faded. Mozart died, but they lived to see their talents fade. The wonderful thing about Paul McCartney is that he appreciated that his fans loved the old stuff. So did he. (If you’d made John Lennon stand on stage and play Beatles songs, he’d have shot himself before that other guy did.) I saw him at Williams-Brice, and loved it. But, as I noted the other day, it’s sad to see him dyeing his hair, still trying to be the Cute One. That time is past, Paul.

Of course, one looks for such fading in oneself. Fortunately for me, I never hit the heights that these guys did. I was a decent writer by local standards, impressive to some people. Just enough people, in my book. It’s nice to have strangers come up and say kind things occasionally, but it’s also good to be able to walk down the street anonymously 99 percent of the time.

And as we age, things fade. First, one is no longer indefatigable. Gone are the days when, as a reporter, I could work all day, all night, and through the next morning before taking a nap (something I did frequently, back in the day).

But if you don’t rise too far, you don’t have as far to fall. I never wrote the Great American Novel (not yet, anyway), so I didn’t have to publicly struggle to replicate that for the rest of my life, while everyone scoffed. When one muddles along, one can continue more easily.

I look back at stuff I wrote 30 years ago when I find it moldering in a box, and it’s good. It has a spark, one that I lament. But it’s strange how one’s appreciation of one’s own work morphs. At any time in my adult life, I’ve thought the stuff I’d written six months earlier SO much better than what I was writing currently. Then, six months later, I’d think THAT stuff was the best I’d ever written. That has continued through my blogging years. (My old blog was SO much better-written than this one — even though it wasn’t nearly as well-read. And the stuff I wrote on this blog a year ago is amazingly better than this tripe I’m churning out now.)

What I’m writing now is the worst stuff I’ve ever written. (In my opinion, which is what counts, since I’m an introvert.) But it has always been thus. Aside from its lack of creativity, it’s shot through with typos and incomplete thoughts, mangled sentences. Because I don’t read back over it, and don’t have an editor — and everybody needs one. But I look forward, ever hopeful, to enjoying it later.

When I don’t do that any more, I’m not sure what I’ll do. Relax, I expect.

What about y’all, in what you do? As critics, do you disappoint yourselves? If so, take heart. Perhaps it will look better later. And even if it doesn’t, the stuff Leon and Elton are putting out is still quite good…

13 thoughts on “The diminishment of creativity over time

  1. Phillip

    In the pop music realm, there’s a whole other factor at work, which is the pressure to fulfill the expectations of at least an equal-sized market to those who were already your fans, if not build upon that market. It’s almost impossible for a real pop star to simultaneously fulfill that goal and retain real creativity. Of course in the period which you’re focusing on (early Elton, late Beatles, i.e., early 1970’s) that was the critical completion of the transition of rock from a countercultural creative phenomenon to a truly commercial, BIG business.

    Of course in the non-commercial realm, that “waning of creativity” sometimes does happen, but sometimes goes the whole other direction. There’s a two-time Pulitzer-winning composer named Elliott Carter who is about a month shy of turning 103, and is the most prolific he’s ever been (40 works since he turned 90, and 14 since he hit the century mark!).

    The Beatles were remarkable in that they tried to stay so innovative in spite of (in reaction to?) their enormous popularity; but even some time before their official split-up, it required them (like the visionary pianist Glenn Gould) to forsake live concerts for the possibilities afforded them in the recording studio. I still wonder what direction Lennon might have gone in musically had he lived.

    But there are plenty of musicians in the quasi-commercial realm who still have that creative restlessness and seem capable of growth on into their older years. Paul Simon just turned 70 last week and he would be a pretty good example.

    I’m with you on early Elton…do you know the live 11-17-70 recording? Fabulous, done in a radio studio with what sounds like about 75 people in the audience…chamber music of its day! (just piano, bass, drums.)

    Reply
  2. Bill

    I agree with some of that,but Tom Waits is still and has always been one of the best things around-more consistent than Dylan(I prefer HIS late 90’s material) and dependable;probably superior…

    With new genres around,NO COMPLAINTS,Columbia has Greg Stuart and plenty of new ‘jazz’/avant music that’s replaced ‘rock’ in many ways…

    You just have to listen,closely.

    Get some,ONJO,Brotzmann Tentet,Pisaro’s, “Fields Have Ears”,Graveyards,Jack Wright,etc,etc,etc

    Robert Pollard writes a new pop classic every 15 minutes-
    listen

    Reply
  3. Nick Nielsen

    I don’t think it’s a loss of creativity, but more what you said: being less satisfied with your new work because it just doesn’t compare to what you’ve already done.

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  4. Wes Wolfe

    I’ve found it’s usually a matter of motivation. My three best stories came during a two-week period in 2006 as a way of giving the finger to my Florida editor. Most of the work since has been awful, but that’s what the people wanted.

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  5. Jesse S.

    With the exception of Elton John (how many years was he a session player?) all of those folks found success pretty early on and not just success, but huge, personality changing success.

    The killer isn’t age (unless you are an athlete), the killer is that deep desire we have for approval. How many great writers are there who created their best work after their loved ones died, because they didn’t want to hurt them? How many slumped because that voice went away?

    The artist likes to say that they went off and did something on their own, but really we all just want a hug from momma and papa bear.

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  6. Kathryn Fenner

    They Might Be Giants have a new album out, and from what I heard on NPR, it’s a winner.

    hey, Phillip–how about Elton John glasses?

    Reply
  7. Ralph Hightower

    I agree with you on Elton John’s early albums. Elton “jumped the shark” when he switched genres to make more money (Top 40). The early Elton was the good stuff.

    Below are my nominations for bands: Pink Floyd, The Kinks, Allman Brothers, Yes, and The Who. I think that Pink Floyd should have their own channel on XM Radio.

    I have to disagree that creativity disappears with age. Yes, I can no longer party like I did when I was 20 or 30.

    At USC, I had a supervisor that gave me a great method for determining the number of days in a month using the “knuckle method”. Forget the rhyme; start counting on the highs. The highs have 31 days (with February being the exception), the valleys between the knuckles have 30. When you reach July, count it again for August and backwards. I detected a pattern, the odd months (January, March, May, July) and even months (August, October, December) have 31 days. Mose programmers created an array of twelve month with 31(Jan), 28 or 29(Feb, there leap years and leap centuries), 31(Mar), 30(Apr), 31(May), 30(Jun), 31(Jul), 31(Aug), 30(Sep), 31(Oct), 30(Nov), 31(Dec). I figured out the pattern and used it to validate dates for a data entry program that I wrote in APL, A Programming Language. Later, I programmed that logic in Intel 8080 assembler. Then I moved to C. Using OR and EXCLUSIVE OR with the month determined if the month had 31 or 30 days.

    August 2007, I saw an article on Microsoft’s Developers Network about Microsoft’s Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO). VSTO provides the ability read, write and interact with Microsoft Office products. The ability to read an Excel file and copy events into Outlook’s calendar. This article shouted to me “Write this program to read Space Shuttle’s schedule to your calendar!” I used C#.Net Regular Expressions to parse the Excel contents. I used that knowledge gained with my current employer to validate and parse dates, telephone numbers, and zip codes.

    Yes, I am my own worst critic. I want to do better.

    Reply
  8. bud

    Speaking of the diminishment of creatitive, or in any case competence, did anyone notice the Charles Kraughthamer column today, complete with Paul Krugman’s photo? The State really does need to hire a proof reader.

    Reply
  9. Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    I kind of have an opposite take on my own writing, Brad. I rarely, if ever, read what I’ve written in the past, because I see where I could have done it better, more concisely, etc.

    I’d like to think, and I believe this to be the case, that overall my writing has continued to improve with time. Of course, that doesn’t make it notable by any means.

    But I do feel that writing, unlike, say, playing a sport, is something that one can continue to improve at throughout one’s life, rather than reaching a plateau, and then beginning a slow but steady decline.

    Reply
  10. Brad

    By the way, I hope this doesn’t destroy any slight reputation I may have for discerning taste, but… at the moment, I’m listening to Grand Funk Railroad’s cover of “Gimme Shelter.” And enjoying it.

    But let me hasten to add, I just like their EARLY stuff, before they got all commercial… There was a certain pure, unapologetic, plain, rock ‘n’ rollness about them.

    I’m the same with Steve Miller Band. I love their “Your Saving Grace” album, but not so much the later stuff that everyone knows… What IS a “pompatous,” anyway?

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  11. Jean Smolen

    My husband was one of the owners of the second Greenstreets in Columbia and I saw of lot of great acts there. But Leon Russell looms in my memory as the most talented performer I ever witnessed on a stage. He performed solo and created an enormous sound as if he had a full band backing him. I was somewhat familiar with his music, but not a major fan until that incredible night.

    Reply

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