"Nessun Dorma" or "People Get Ready"?
by Ernie Schenck
I wasn’t at Madison Square Garden recently when real-life guitar heroes, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, came down from Mount Olympus and walked out onto the stage smack in the middle of a cold winter's night in New York City.
I wasn’t there, but I wish I had been.
I wish I had seen those two trading licks, going back and forth like Skywalker and Vader, light sabers thrumming and slashing and threatening to cut your head off at any moment. And when it was over, the audience’s senses stunned, their brains reeling in state of high-frequency bliss, I wish I could have seen them bow to each other, two old enemies paying homage.
Now here’s the thing.
Clapton is immense. Huge. He is Optimus Prime with an axe. The man’s talent is so enormous it blocks out the sun. And yet, on that night in New York City, Clapton performed the expected. “I’ve Got A Rock ’n’ Roll Heart.” “Cocaine.” “I Shot The Sheriff.” Great songs all.
And then there was Beck. And oh my goodness, what can one say? Yes, there was “A Day In The Life,” the Beatles classic that had earned him a Grammy only a few weeks earlier. But “Moon River”? Well, um, yes. How about the Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma” or “Corpus Christi Carol”? Or “Eternity’s Breath”? Make no mistake. What that audience expected was “People Get Ready.” What they got from Jeff Beck was anything but.
So here’s the question: Are you Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton?
Are you Optimus Prime with a laptop? Inordinately talented. A digital god. An art director with an aesthetic sense beyond mortal comprehension. A writer whose craft is so finely honed, your words cause pages and screens to bleed. Your design skills as tightly wound as an E string. Ever the talented craftsman. Ever the zigger, never the zagger.
Or does your mind live in the “Nessun Dorma” space? Ever intent on exploding convention. Always seeing the circle when the world sees the square. The creative who lives in the other place. The one who who chafes at conformity. The stretcher. The pusher. The one who isn’t afraid to go down the rabbit hole. Dark though it might be. Shapeless though it might be.
May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Igor Stravinsky premiers his Rite of Spring. The score was pioneering, Nijinsky’s choreography radically unsettling. The audience was incensed, outraged to the tipping point of violence, believing that the Stravinsky work was a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art. So loud was the theater with the catcalls and the booing, hissing and yelling, that the orchestra was utterly drowned out.
Bob Dylan knows the feeling. In 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival, Dylan played three songs with a rock backing and unleashed a storm of derision. The neo-Woody Guthrie was suddenly the outcast. The crowd expected “Tambourine Man.” Instead they got a rocked out version of “Maggie's Farm.” As Robert Shelton writes in No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan: “They seemed to understand that night for the first time what Dylan has been trying to say for over a year—that he is not theirs or anyone else’s and they didn’t like what they heard and booed.... Can there be no songs as violent as the age? Must a folk song be of mountains, valleys and love between my brother and my sister all over this land? Do we allow for despair only in the blues? The only one in the entire festival who questioned our position was Bob Dylan. Maybe he didn’t put it in the best way. Maybe he was rude. But he shook us. And that is why we have poets and artists.”
And that is also why we have art directors and copywriters and designers.
Is the purpose of what we do to validate the patterns of the past? Is that why we’re here? I don’t think it is. In our finest moments, I think we are meant to be Jeff Beck, knowing that the universe wants us to play what it gives us permission to play, but instead taking it down an altogether unfamiliar road. In the end, we are not cover bands. We are Dylan on a warm evening in Newport in 1965.
Ever the stretcher. Ever the pusher. CA