It’s the things we create out of love and passion, not the things we create out of a sense of obligation, that endure. Great art blooms from the heartfelt, illogical, sometimes embarrassing impulses we harbor.
Last Saturday, I drove 250 miles to attend the reunion of family members I’d never met – my grandmother’s surviving brothers and sisters. My father’s mother, who passed away a few years ago at a ripe old age, grew up on a big farm in the tiny town of Manchester, Iowa, the oldest of sixteen children. Life on the farm was rough, and my exceedingly independent grandmother left Iowa before the age of eighteen, moving east and starting her own family. After she left, my grandmother fell out of touch with her Manchester roots, which meant that if I were ever going to meet my grandmother’s family, I’d have to do it on my own initiative. So there I was, a shaggy-haired, city-dwelling rocker in a room full of rural farmers. As different as we seemed, I smiled every time I witnessed the undeniable ways in which these were, in fact, my people. I saw it in their eyes and their noses, in the sound of their voices. We were clearly made of the same stuff. Out of that connection poured stories, stories that helped fill in some of the gaps about where I’d come from. But of all the stories I heard that day, it was the story I heard about my great-uncle Forest’s peonies – bushes that produce huge, vibrant blooms – that struck me most.
Peonies are common in Iowa. So when my great-uncle inherited the family farm in the 1930s, it wasn’t unusual that the sprawling property already featured a few peonies. But by the time my great-uncle died last year, he had cultivated an entire grove of peonies, hundreds of bushes that filled the sprawling east lawn of the property. On my way out of town after the reunion, I passed the old farm and saw the peonies for myself – row after row after row of them. Coincidentally, the reunion date coincided with the peak of the peony flowering season, and from the two-lane road in front of the property, the peony blooms were a breathtaking sea of pink, violet and white.
During my five-hour drive home that night, my thoughts kept returning to my uncle’s not-so-secret indulgence. In the manly farming culture in which my uncle lived and worked – a harsh and uncertain world that prospers or perishes on the whims of capricious weather patterns – stoics and tough guys are the norm. My uncle himself was no pansy, yet he seemed obsessed with peonies. This apparent contradiction moved me. I found it interesting and artful, courageous even. What business did Forest have spending time filling his yard with these pretty plants? Did his friends ever rib him about his big prissy flower patch?
Oddly, thinking about my uncle’s unorthodox hobby led me to consider the way in which my peers and I have made decisions about the kind of music we create. We grew up in the habit of always pondering the next big thing. We watched our older brothers and sisters dance to disco. We bought sprawling drum sets to meet the challenges of prog rock. We exchanged our big kits for drum machines and keyboards when New Wave rolled in. We stole mom’s hairspray for the cause of heavy metal. And grunge finally forced us to tune our drums properly. With the dawn of each movement we all asked, “How can I fit in and be part of this?”
As musicians, we can be so concerned about being out of sync with the norm that we doubt our own muse. Instead of putting faith in making music we love, we often rely too much on what we think others think is cool. While we’re busy questioning, we overlook the fact that the most successful and most enduring art has been made by people who’ve ignored the trends. These are artists who – like my uncle Forest – had the boldness to act on the kinds of strange and mysterious whims that set them apart from everyone else.
Uncool Is Cool
As it happened, the day after the reunion, I went to see my favorite band of the prog-rock era – Rush. The concert confirmed for me that as a musician trying to make a living from their art, trying to be cool and current is a dead end, and a waste of precious effort. Like many drummers my age, when I was in sixth grade, Rush was my favorite band. To be perfectly honest, for a year or two I was so obsessed with Rush and the drumming of Neil Peart, I didn’t listen to any other bands. I’ve been out of touch with Rush since middle school, so seeing the group live after all these years was an experience oozing with nostalgia.
At the concert it struck me that Rush just may be the most uncool band ever. Throughout the band’s epic thirty-five year career, Rush never enjoyed the status of “hip.” Even in prog-rock’s glory days, Rush was different. They existed on the fringes of the music spectrum – farther out than Genesis and Yes. They took “high-concept” to newer (and higher) heights. As a result, popular culture never embraced the band. But it also couldn’t ignore them. In spite of the band’s extreme geekiness – exhibited in songs featuring trees that engage in warfare, social-political rants about free will, and ten-minute instrumental breaks – Rush got airplay, and they still do today.
The truth is that Rush was never good at being cool or “relevant.” But then again, they didn’t need to be. Rush was only good at being Rush, and that they were, and still are, unreal! And it’s not the group’s much-talked-about virtuosity that’s made them successful – there are a thousand groups whose members can play their instruments as well or better. What made Rush successful is the group’s fidelity to their peculiar creative vision, a vision that made it one of the most commercially successful, longest surviving bands in history. Whether you love Rush or can’t stand them, the band should serve as an inspiring example for all of us. Rush is living proof that an adoring audience can be the reward for an artist who has the courage to follow his heart through the honest and sometimes strange places it takes him.
Follow Your Heart…To The Bank
Now, more than ever before, it’s commercially smarter for an artist to dedicate themselves to their own muse, rather than jumping on some musical bandwagon. Why? Because the slow death of big record companies today, as well as the decline of radio as an effective way to promote an artist, means that the machine that once created the trends is breaking down. The wheels have fallen off the bandwagon.
Happily, we’re now living in an era that discourages sameness and rewards art that’s far more personal. In the impatient age of YouTube, the way to get noticed is to create an original statement, something that sounds like nothing else – something that only YOU would do. If you’re good, if you promote yourself well, and if you have the patience to stick with it, eventually your own peculiar vision will be feeding you and your family. And there’s no better feeling in the world than that.
Back at that reunion, it was interesting to observe the kinds stories people chose to tell me about my deceased relatives. Curious enough, I rarely heard about seemingly important things like how a someone made their living. Apparently, a person’s career was trite compared to tales that provided a juicy glimpse into what made them tick, what made them uniquely them. So instead of hearing about how my uncle Forest managed the complexities of operating a large farm, I heard about something more revealing – his unusual fondness for peonies.
The story about Forest and his peonies reminded me that it’s the things we do out of love and passion, not the things we do out of a sense of obligation, that endure. Great art blooms from the heartfelt, illogical, and possibly embarrassing impulses we harbor. When we mess with those impulses too much, when we censor them, smooth the edges, and try to conform them to something we presume people will like, we remove the very thing that makes our work compelling.