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The G Word

PostPosted: Mon Jul 03, 2006 9:27 am
by howard male
Below is the continuation of the most recent dialogue in The Canon Cathedral topic. I thought it was potentially a strong enough tangent to warrant it's own topic heading.

I wrote -

Bowie is a genius - so there!


Adam wrote -

Hey! Watch your language! The G word is a big one to chuck around. I don't think that western pop/ rock has produced anyone who could be called a genius. The closest is Jimi Hendrix, I'd say - if only because his extraordinary guitar playing (still unmatched) seemed so effortless. But even then, Jimi used to practice ALL THE TIME. Beethoven was a genius - you try writing timeless and magnificent music when you're stone deaf! Django Reinhardt was a genius. Charlie Parker, maybe Miles. Maybe Franco. Even people like Munir Bachir or Vilayat Khan who were undoubtedly the greatest musicians of their time in their respective cultures (or at least, as far as I know they were) got where they were by sheer hard graft: practising eight hours a day for decades on end.

David Bowie hardly measures up. Very talented, yes, very clever, very canny and business savvy, certainly. But not a genius.


I agree, Adam - the G word is one that should be used very sparingly indeed and the fact that it isn't ("genius, mate, genius!") is only ending up devaluing it. But as I'm sure you realised - in the Bowie context - I was merely throwing back a school playground-ism at Garth to try to illustrate how little such statements further an argument.

But we could have an interesting tangent here: what is a genius or what constitutes a genius? Your posting suggests virtuosity combined with invention are the two main criterion for you? Personally I don't believe the former is as important as the latter.

Also perhaps we can talk of, say, Bowie as a genius, in the sense that we can say Bowie was 'a genius at assimilating many different musical styles and not only making them his own but also making of them something new which then influenced countless other musicians' - surely an artist's lasting influence has to high on the list of defining G characteristics?

Talking of which, we can add to Garth's list of Bowie's pop crimes (making 'Sioxsie & The Banshees, Marilyn Manson, 9 Inch Nails, Suede'the mostly unlistenable acts they are) some more obvious candidates: Gary Numan, Utravox, Japan, Simple Minds, Martin Fry, and more recently Arcade Fire, and a thousand other bands I've neither heard nor heard of. As someone once pointed out: bands have based whole careers on a single Bowie faze, or even just a single Bowie single! I mention this motley crew of Bowie clones just to point out how far-reach (and yes, in most cases I agree - damaging) his influence has been, and therefore how much he at least fits the criterion of lasting influence.

Sorry, I didn't mean to go on about Bowie again! He just serves as a useful place to start regarding the use or misuse of the G word. Over to you lot.

PostPosted: Mon Jul 03, 2006 1:48 pm
by Ian M
Howard, I think your lumping of Arcade Fire in with these other 80's bands is off the mark. Their CD is excellent and I just can't see it as a Bowie clone. in any way. Most of the talk of Bowie is of a 70's artist, but for my money the Berlin trilogy is where he and Eno pioneered an electronic vision, one which still influences bands now, and has done since they came out. For a view of Bowie at work check out the Eno diary. Genius? Well I don't know about that, it is an overused word. Perhaps we need a word somewhat less hyperbolic than genius, which can still credit innovation, influence, orginality, longevity etc and which marks out certain individuals over and above the rest. Einstein was a genius, maybe Picasso, I wouldn't want to put many musicians up there quite frankly, Miles being the only one I can think of.

PostPosted: Tue Jul 04, 2006 1:42 pm
by Adam Blake
Don't forget Blur - massively indebted to Bowie in their earlier albums (up to, say, "Blur".) For what it's worth, I think Bowie's most creative period was in the late 60s. Which just goes to show how Bowie fans can like completely different kinds of music and still be Bowie fans!

But genius... Well, so many books have been written about it and it still remains a mystery. I think COMPULSIVELY EFFORTLESSLY SUPERIOR is my criteria. Like a talent taken to the Nth degree, apparently with ease, by someone who really can't help but do it. That doesn't mean they don't work at it, of course, they probably do nothing else. But the ease with which they can surpass all their contemporaries is almost an irrelevence to them. They are pursuing an interior vision which drives them, usually completely relentlessly.

I think genius has a lot of common ground with Tourette's Syndrome. I'm convinced that both Mozart and Charlie Parker were Touretters: benignly amoral, scatologically obsessed, self-destructive, addictive personalities, apparently talented beyond measure or precedent. THAT'S a genius!

Bowie was (is) very clever. VERY clever. But not a genius...

PostPosted: Tue Jul 04, 2006 1:52 pm
by Chris Walsh
Here we go again! All good fun.
I agree with many of the views expressed here. Although, I'm of the opinion that the term 'genius' is not a word that works well as far as art is concerned. Somehow, when you tag a musician as a genius, it inevitably fits them only some of the time. I prefer to refer to genius moments in music. Even Mozart churned out some pretty average stuff by the standards of his day... he just did enough great work in his life to warrant being called a genius - I suppose he was most of the time. But still, that doesn't tie in with Adam's description of a genius. Likewise, I think Bowie's career is littered with moments of sheer genius, but it's certainly not consistent. Who'd want to be a genius anyway? What a drag - I'd bet you'd have no friends!

PostPosted: Tue Jul 04, 2006 2:06 pm
by Adam Blake
Chris Walsh wrote:Even Mozart churned out some pretty average stuff by the standards of his day... .


Poor old Wolfgang. He was a gigging composer - just think how HE felt about having to churn out all that product for boring state occasions, rich folks weddings etc. etc. when he had an ENTIRE MUSICAL UNIVERSE in his head just waiting to be documented. The 17th and 18th century patronage system was a lot of hard grind. Maybe that's another criteria: having an alternative universe in your head. What about Ludwig, then? God (or a steady diet of graphite) struck him stone deaf and he STILL wouldn't quit! In fact, if he hadn't gone deaf he probably wouldn't have come up with Romanticism which fuelled Art music in Europe for the next 75 years. Discuss...

PostPosted: Tue Jul 04, 2006 5:30 pm
by howard male
I'm intrigued by the Tourettes-genus connection - are there any books which support this theory, Adam? I'm currently trying to flesh out my fictional seventies rock star with genius-like qualities because I've set myself the task of trying not to make him comical in the way so many fictional rock stars have been.

I've held off from mentioning B** B****** so far this year, but your mention of Tourette's makes me think of the fantastic Tourette's sufferer Pete who is without a doubt some kind of genius at making an impressively complex polyrhythmic sound with anything that's lying around the kitchen or garden. He's also naturally funny and quite a good caricaturist.

I didn't intend to put Arcade Fire in with the other Bowie influence acts I mentioned, Ian - I was continuing the list forgetting I'd started it by saying 'Bowie's pop crimes'. Because in some ways - though over stylised - Japan had their moments too. I agree, Arcade Fire are an intriguing proposition, and both Bowie and Byrne (a fourth B to add to your list Charlie?) have given their stamp of approval by performed on stage with the band.

Along with Adam's COMPULSIVELY EFFORTLESSLY SUPERIOR I would add an unquenchable thirst for perfection. This means I have to propose one of my favourite classical composers, Sibelius - didn't he work on his final symphony for twenty years or something, and then left it unfinished because it didn't live up to his high expectations? Or was it that he remained musically silent for twenty years for the same reason? Does that make him a genius or, because he failed, a flawed genius?

I'm also very wary of the idea of singling out great musicians from other great musicians almost out of critical habit, and calling them a genius - are for example, Miles, Marley or Lennon really more entitled to the title than many other great Jazz, reggae or rock artists? It's like the way Citizen Kane always comes out at the top of classic film lists, when we're all probably secretly bored to death by it. And does anyone actually find that comic 'genius' Chaplin funny?

PostPosted: Wed Jul 05, 2006 5:44 pm
by Adam Blake
Love Sibelius. What a top dude. Liked a drink or three. My dad told me that Finland introduced prohibition but were so proud of Sibelius that they made a special dispensation for him and his mates to go out on the piss if they so desired. My favourite symphonies of his are 2 and 5. Not wild about 7 but it's OK. Was it worth 20 years work? Mmmmm... Maybe.

Love Citizen Kane. What a top movie. Best ever made? Bit of a stupid discussion, really. Just list making for people with nothing better to do. Certainly, Welles was way ahead of the competition - just because he had naturally good taste and didn't know anything about what was and what wasn't "done". He couldna done it without Gregg Toland, though, and that's for sure.

PostPosted: Thu Jul 06, 2006 1:40 pm
by howard male
Adam wrote -

My favourite symphonies of his are 2 and 5


I'm a fourth man, myself. It was the first one I heard - so dark, bleak, and boarderline dissonant, yet still full of great melodies which slowly wrap themselves around your soul. But yes, the fifth is great too.

Sibelius is the only classical composer I've ever become totally obsessed with for a while. He seemed to get that balance just right between satisfying musical expectations and confounding them. Making you wait and wait for musical resolutions.

PostPosted: Thu Jul 06, 2006 5:21 pm
by Adam Blake
I was going to say, "if you like Sibelius, you should try..." but then there isn't anybody else like Sibelius!

PostPosted: Fri Jul 07, 2006 12:15 am
by Adam Blake
Another Touretter/ Genius type for you: Eminem!

PostPosted: Fri Jul 07, 2006 12:40 am
by howard male
Really? Do you mean literally?

PostPosted: Fri Jul 07, 2006 8:40 am
by Adam Blake
Well, I think "The Slim Shady LP" and "The Marshall Mathers LP" are both astonishing pieces of work. Seriously I wouldn't say he was a genius, but he has such an extraordinary facility with obscene and often very funny doggerel - which he can apparently just churn out at will. His obsession with obscenity and his absolutely impeccably rhythmic sense would certainly be commensurate with a dose of Tourette's. He's definitely a one-off. Certainly the only modern rapper I can listen to.

PostPosted: Fri Jul 07, 2006 10:09 am
by howard male
Adam wrote -

Certainly the only modern rapper I can listen to.


Try K'naan - the guy's really got it lyrically - and he writes good tunes too.
Some tracks are overly marred by Eminem mannerisms but I think he's already become aware of that (several critics have made the comparison) and when I saw him live I felt he had now found his own voice stylistically.

PostPosted: Fri Jul 07, 2006 11:50 am
by Chris Walsh
As for myself (as the Cheshire Cat would say), I think the greatest rapper around, both rhythmically, stylistically and content-wise is Zach De La Rocha. Totally unbeatable IMHO.

- Chris