Dissecting/Not Dissecting “The Muse”

Is it quality or quantity that makes a songwriter a genius?

By Al Kooper 9/97

Recently, in a forum that I participate in online, this discussion
took place by E-mail. The editors were kind enough to let me post it
here as a column, even though it’s not technical mumbo-jumbo about how
to make your equipment work better. It’s intellectual mumbo jumbo about
letting your freak flag fly. The participants names have been changed
to protect the possibly guilty


Subj: Songwriting Question
From: Participant One
Al, reading about all your records got me looking at my CD collection
and I pulled out Rhino’s Loving Spoonfuls Greatest Hits, which I hadn’t
played in a while. Great stuff. Anyway, my question is this: Why do
musicians, like your friend John Sebastian, write an incredible amount
of classic songs (“Summer in City,” “Do You Believe in Magic,” et al.)
over a relatively short period of time and then can’t come up with
anything of that quality later on. I’m not attacking John — I know he
had a few more classics like “Welcome Back” and “She’s A Lady” — but
how come the songs stop churning out for musicians? Rod Argent is
another example. Is it because they just don’t want to write any more
songs of that genre/style?


Subj: Songwriting Question
From: Al Kooper

In answering your question, I have to take exception to it. I am not
directing this at you personally, you’re only a product of a society
with no appreciation or understanding of “the muse.”
If you look back, historically you’ll find that all great talents had
their “periods of greatness.” From Shakespeare to John Milton; from
Rimbaud to Kerouac; from Little Richard to Ray Charles; from Bob Dylan
to John Fogerty; from Neil Young to Van Morrison; from Sly Stone to
Prince. I think it’s the norm rather than an unusual occurrence.
So.... does their audience thank the God that blessed all those people
with their windows of extreme creativeness? No! They are lambasted for
not keeping up with a standard that a person that writes or complains
about it, like yourself, couldn’t even possibly attain.
So, thank God you have Shakespeare’s greatest works to still enjoy, and
the great stuff that all the other people I mentioned spewed out in
incredibly creative thunderstorms that blew through them, and then left
them hopefully calm and satisfied.
Why can’t the public be satisfied with that and revere these people for
their great work no matter what time frame it was in? According to your
aesthetic, maybe Buddy Holly and John Lennon were lucky to die rather
than surelyface derision for later work that was already beginning to
be judged less artistic by an ungrateful fan base.
Shame on you — stop taking these wonderful people for granted!


Subj: Re: Songwriting Question
From: Participant One

You’re entitled to your opinion. I’m not criticizing these people,
but what I don’t understand is how does one go from a great standard to
nada? That’s what I don’t understand.
Are you basically saying that a songwriter capable of writing classics
can only do so for a short period of time and then that it’s impossible
to continue attaining that level?


Subj: Re: Songwriting Question
From: Al Kooper

No. I’m saying why not just sit back and enjoy what you can from their
output and then seek out whatever your taste is elsewhere if it’s not
being met at the same source.
I’m saying what difference does it make? Accept it and move on. The
source does.....


Subj: Re: Songwriting Question
From: Participant Two

I think the question needs to be rephrased. (John Sebastian and the
Blues Project are among my favorites. My 4- and 8-year olds know this
music.) I’m transported by this stuff and I often wonder: “Do these
guys know that we’re all still out there, loving this stuff, that in
this moment it’s as alive as the day it was written/recorded?” And I
find myself wishing I could have written just one song to nest in
people’s hearts or make their blood rush. Just one.
The question is, how did these guys write so much — not so little. I
don’t mean this disparagingly Participant One, really I don’t, but here
goes.... Have you written one song that you know is being played and
loved by someone every minute of every day, somewhere? Just one would
be a life’s pride — these guys wrote dozens....


I guess Participant Two shut me up at that point because he/she said it
more succintly and soulfully than I was able to. Case was closed and
new vistas were quickly explored. Hope this cools out some other people
who have never had the "Muse" run through their creative bodies and
therefore can’t understand it. Some people call it the hand of God.

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