Thursday, April 21, 2011

Plucked from the ether

'With most of the songs I've ever written, quite honestly, I've felt there's an enormous gap here, waiting to be filled; this song should have been written hundreds of years ago. How did nobody pick up on that little space? Half the time you're looking for gaps that other people haven't done.'
– Keith Richards in Life, referring specifically to Exile on Main Street*

All great art – whether literature, music or painting (probably not film – it's too much of a collaborative process) – has a timeless, ethereal quality to it, as if it was always meant to be, and has indeed always existed, it just took the right person to pluck it from the ether. Though Richards isn't exactly the genius per se, his insights into the songwriting process are fascinating – he had no idea he could write songs until he was locked in a kitchen with Mick Jagger and told he couldn't come out until he'd written one. 'Great songs write themselves', he also comments in Life, his autobiography, and this seems to ring true with other great songwriters such as McCartney/Lennon and Bob Dylan, who said, early in his career: 'The songs are there. They exist all by themselves, just waiting for someone to write them down. I just put them down on paper. If I didn't do it, somebody else would'. The same also seems to ring true with other great artists, from the paintings of Van Gogh and da Vinci to the works of Shakespeare and Dickens to characters such as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Sherlock Holmes.

In Iain Sinclair's introduction to a recent edition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes story, he touches upon a similar idea:

'Holmes and Watson were instant immortals, springing, full-grown and two-thirds formed, from the author's head. They were inevitable, a force of nature. It was impossible to believe that they had not always been there: the same age, the same clothes, the same room. […] Conan Doyle was taking down a form of dictation, accessing voices from a parallel universe (where they had always been present).'

A parallel universe! It's a fascinating idea that great art isn't actually created but already exists, somewhere, and the artist is just the vessel or the channel in which to capture it and put it down on paper. I used to discuss a similar theory with a friend, that all our ideas and thoughts are just floating around, ready for the right receptacle to pluck them.

*I wish I could go back to hearing Exile on Main Street for the very first time. I remember what I thought of the album on first listening to it, maybe twenty years ago or so: that it was jumbled and chaotic and made no sense. But I kept with it. And when I finally 'got it', after five or six listens, perhaps, it was like a Eureka moment: I was, like, God, this is amazing. I've played it to death over the years and can't listen to it any more. I only had a cassette copy of it until a couple of years ago, which I'd copied off a friend's crackly vinyl. I have the CD now, which I hardly play.

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