Categories
Books Music

The long and winding genius of the Pauls (McCartney and Simon)

While trolling for something to read on Hoopla, I came upon Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon. It’s only available as an audiobook (or “audio biography”), and wisely so since so much of it depends on hearing Simon play his songs amidst his conversations with Gladwell. In that way it’s more like a limited podcast series than a book.

Whatever you call it, Gladwell’s intention was to interrogate the phenomenon of creative genius, and pinpoint how and why it applied to Simon, whose long and wide-ranging musical career set him in contrast to other contemporary artists who may have had higher peaks (The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan) but didn’t produce at the same level of quality over decades as Simon has.

As Gladwell writes:​

We tend to be much more caught in the peaks of an artist’s career. But why? The true definition of creative genius—to my mind, at least—is someone who is capable of creating something sublime and then, when that moment passes, capable of reconfiguring their imagination and returning to the table with something wholly different and equally sublime.​

Whether Simon meets this criteria is debatable, though Gladwell makes a good case for it.

The other Paul

Regardless, the book found me at a propitious time since I just finished watching and listening to the other famous ’60s singer-songwriter Paul in the documentary The Beatles: Get Back. The film captures McCartney in his first sublime period, which coincided with the transition between The Beatles and his solo work.

His career as a whole is eerily similar to Simon’s: incredible creative and commercial success within a popular group throughout the 1960s, followed by an acrimonious breakup in 1970 and then decades of steady solo output of variable quality.

(Conan O’Brien even had a bit involving Lorne Michaels called “Which Paul is he talking about?” since Lorne is friends with both.)

Per Gladwell’s formulation, both men created something sublime within a relatively condensed cultural moment, then reconfigured their output after that moment passed. Whether those later albums were “wholly different and equally sublime” depends on where you look.

If it’s a choice between The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, I choose the Fab Four all the way. (My cheeky Better The Beatles series notwithstanding.)

But solo-wise, I think Simon’s exceptional ‘70s work combined with the highlights of Graceland (1986), The Rhythm of the Saints (1992), and So Beautiful or So What (2011) give him the edge over McCartney, whose early solo work was definitely the best of all the ex-Beatles (though not perfect), but didn’t approach the sublime until Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005) and Memory Almost Full (2007).

Seeing Paul McCartney at Wrigley Field just over 10 years ago remains an all-time life highlight. (By seeing I mean standing outside Wrigley listening and singing along and barely catching a glimpse of him on the Jumbotron. But still.) I regret not being able to see Paul Simon live, as I imagine it would have been just as good but delightfully different. Which, perhaps, is what Gladwell would consider it too.

Categories
Technology

Code of Ethics for engineers (and everyone)

Not sure where I found this on the interwebs, but I immediately fell in love with it—not for the engineering and robotics aspect, but for how it can be used for any creative work:

Let’s call these the 10 Commandments of Creative Work. Just replace “robot” with your art of choice:

1. Be industrious. Build, test, repeat.

2. Follow Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

3. Ask questions. Always.

4. Try things you’ve never tried before. There are many solutions to one problem.

5. Don’t fall apart if your robot does. It’s a chance to begin again.

6. Keep tinkering even if you’ve run out of ideas. Building will bring you more ideas.

7. Save your best ideas in secret notebooks.

8. Read lots of books about other things. Things that are not robots.

9. Pay attention to dreams.

10. Remember: the best robots are the ones you haven’t thought of yet.

Categories
Books

Creativity is the long way

Reading Brene Brown’s Rising Strong, this quote surprised me:

Creativity embeds knowledge so that it can become practice. We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands. We are born makers, and creativity is the ultimate act of integration—it is how we fold our experiences into our being.

Fully agree. But I expected the first sentence to end with wisdom, not practice. Probably because my bias, whether I like it or not, is toward matters of the head. This is a blessing that can become a curse when I fail to externalize ideas and knowledge through some kind of outward expression.

It is counterintuitive that sending knowledge from the head to the heart is not the direct route it appears. To become truly meaningful, it must take the long way. Perhaps that’s why creativity is so challenging yet so rewarding.

Then again, there’s the Ron Swanson perspective: