Oblique Strategies

A couple of days ago, Jack and I went to hang out with a friend of ours while he works on his latest album. He was spending a week or two in a giant recording studio on the West Side. It was Saturday but he had a bunch of engineers huddled in the booth while he sat alone in this gigantic space and laid down bass tracks. During a break, he explained that it was one of the last of the great studios, built in the ’70s, an enormous space with warm acoustics, where lots of classic albums had been recorded.

It seemed a unusual place to find my friend, who is famous for cutting edge electronic music and dance tunes. I’ve usually experienced his works in progress as MP3 files that arrive in my email box, songs that are reworked and morphed over the years. He generally works alone and surrounded by computers. But here he is in this creaky wooden yurt of a room that looks like a sauna and feels like the end of an era.

He told us that he was trying to record an album using no electronic instruments, no effects, a string section, and even the electric bass he was laying down would ultimately be replaced by a standup. He asked if I’d ever heard of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. I nodded but then admitted I hadn’t. He said that Eno had a made up a deck of cards each of which had some instruction or limitation which you’d follow to turn your work in a new direction. It had inspired him to try something completely different. It reminded me of a film called the 5 Obstructions in which Lars Van Trier has Jorgen Leth make and remake a film according to various rules he’d give him. It was one of the things that inspired me to think of ways to shock my own system when I draw, to challenge myself to work in very particular ways or with various limbs tied behind my back. It’s the idea behind the Everyday Matters challenges, to provoke you into a direction you’d never considered, trying something that may be uncomfortable but which opens a door.

Creativity is all about fresh perspectives, about finding the truth and seeing what’s really there. You have to break out of the box you’re in and get things moving — even if that means tricking yourself. Sometimes you have to draw with your eyes closed to see clearly. Sometimes that means standing on your head, or drawing with a Sharpie, or using your left hand — or turning off the computer and getting in a string section.

Backstage with the Peeps

Jack’s band, the Peeps, continues to flourish. They are currently big fans of Tenacious D and discussing playing some of their songs at their next concert.

The lineup coninues to vary a little bit and some members are switching instruments. However, despite changing schools, Jack’s pal Max continues to be a Peep, a loyalty that bodes well.

I made up this composition as I went, beginning with Jack’s drumkit and then adding the rest of the band in a reflection in a mirror in the corner. The whole practice room is jammes with gear, wires, light and mirrrors — a challenge and a treat to draw.

Chillin' with Dylan


Last week, I was hit by a sniffling cold midday. I spent the last few hours of the workday back at home, in bed with tea and Bob Dylan’s new memoir. By the next morning, I’d bounced back and finished reading the book.
For most of my life, I really had no interest in Dylan until about seven years ago when my friend, Bob Dye, more or less forced me to listen to The Freewheelin’ and Highway 61. The music softened my resistance but Pennebaker’s movie, “Don’t Look Back” triggered the sort of instant conversion usually limited to evangelicals. I haven’t paid much attention to the albums from the mid 1970s to the mid 90s but own and play most of the early and late records fairly regularly.
Despite all this enthusiasm, nothing prepared me for Chronicles, Vol. I. I had long assumed that , though I admired the music, the man was arrogant and withdrawn, the sort of person one would never want to spend ten minutes with. Instead, I discovered that Bob Dylan has all the hallmarks of the quintessential creative person (and I’m surprised that this surprised me).
First I was struck by how much he knows about music, all sorts of music, from classical to bebop to rap to doo-wop to the cheesiest sort of pop, and is able to extract something useful and inspiring from all of it. Like Picasso, he believed in borrowing from everywhere … but himself.
Secondly, he has always challenged himself — not to be successful financially and critically — but to constantly grow and branch out in new directions. Except for a period where he admits he was in some sort of creative stupor, he has always been motivated by some flickering notion in the back of his head that slowly grows and blooms as he feeds it. It’s not to ‘show the world’ or provoke the industry, but because he is always feeding himself with new influences that spark fresh ideas and directions.
Thirdly, despite the fact that he is such an important maverick, he has deep roots in those that came before. His love for and appreciation of roots blues and folks music has always been the core of his art. He has solid foundations, ones he forged himself, and he has been layering on top of them for fifty years. Reading about his early record collection had me revisiting mine, pulling out Sleepy John Estes, Dave Van Ronk, and Harry Smith’s American Folk Music once again.
Next, I was struck by his enormous generosity. He is lavish in his acknowledgment of all the influences on his art. He talks about what he learned from all sorts of surprising influences, everyone from Frank Sinatra, Jr. to Daniel Lanois.
It was fascinating to hear how he first came to write music, how content he had been to simply play others’ compositions, and how hesitant he was to compromise the body of folk music, sort of like if Horowitz began playing his own piano sonatas rather than Ludwig Van’s. Slowly Dylan began to introduce his own additional lyrics to folk standards and then eventually to create his own from the staff up.
While he was committed and hard working, Dylan never comes off as terribly ambitious. He wants to keep moving forward, to play for larger audiences so he can have new creative opportunities but he never set out to be a superstar. In fact, in his admiration for pop singers and Tin Pan Alley composers, he acknowledges that playing Woody Guthrie songs hardly seemed the road to fame and fortune, even in the folk-mad days of the early 1960s. Even recently, when he has been touring a lot, it’s to stretch himself creatively, to play music publicly that should be played, to shed the nostalgic classic rock trappings and talk to new audiences in new ways. Miles was much the same way. The still-touring members of the Stones, the Beatles, the Who, etc. have no such creative ambitions.
I’d urge you to read the book and see how it strikes you. I believe it has a lot in it for anyone contemplating their own creativity.
A number of people have written to me for a certain kind of advice. Typically, they’ll ask how they can become professional illustrators or, even more frequently, how they can get books published. I tend to answer such letters less often than I used to because I realize that I don’t have the answers. But I think Bob does. Here are a few landmarks:
1. Figure out what you’re about. What do you like to do, what are your media, your subject matter, your style.
2. Explore. Getting to #1 requires flexibility, openness, a willingness to explore and to try on lots of costumes.
3. Focus. Spend less time on success and more on art. The more you work, the better your art, the more likely things are going to happen. And figure out what you really want. At one point, I just wanted my name on a book jacket, any book. Now I have a clearer sense of what I am willing to spend my time on. And consider your work from the point of view of those who you want to want it. Learn about the industry you are trying to break into and the audience you are talking to. Don’t just send off stuff to inappropriate and uninterested publishers. Understand the market.
4. Move to New York. You may have to make some sacrifices but if you’re not where it’s at, you’re not where it’s at. This applies to those hellbent on commercial success (but, of course, there are many other ways to be successful). But most importantly, when you are in the deep end of the creative pool surrounded by others full of energy and ideas and examples, you learn to swim a lot better.
5. Be generous. Seize every opportunity to thank people and include them in what you’re doing. Give your work away then make more.
6. There are no small parts. Play the coffee shops, pass the basket, don’t just hold out for the Garden. Be willing to illustrate school play programs or diner menus, publish a zine, start a blog etc. whatever will get your work out into the world.
7. Meet like-minded folks and be actively involved with them. Meet other artists and creative people but don’t just talk about the business of art (god, how dull) but share your passion for making things and infect each other.
8. Never complain, never explain. Be yourself and be glad of it. Creativity needs light and nourishment.
9. Above all, do what you love and love what you do. Don’t try to figure out what you should to to be successful but how to successfully express what’s makes you you. There’s nothing more pathetic and boring than those who have done everything they can to mold themselves to the prevailing notions of what is popular. That already exists (it’s on Fox and it’s called American Idol). You need to blaze new paths, your own paths. No one does what you do. Keep it that way by expressing the true you, the inner you.
Remember, Art’s most important job is to light the viewer’s fuse, to create new feelings and insights, to create by sharing. By sharing yourself, you make the world a better place. The important goal is not to win gold records or Hummers or groupies. It’s the same as the goal of every share cropper who picked up a Sears guitar and wailed the blues. To be authentic, to express yourself. That may lead you to Cleveland and the Hall of Fame or, even better, to an enriched feeling of what it is to be human.

Holy Roller Novocaine


Most mornings, after breakfast but before we head out for the day, Jack and I flip on our amps, grab our axes and fire it up. One of us plays rhythm, a standard 12-bar blues (E,A,B7) and the other solos, usually with the drive turned up for maximum distortion effect. Fortunately, we have thick floors and forgiving neighbors and for some reason Patti generally ignores or applauds our efforts. After ten minutes or so, we return our Fenders to their stands and go out the door, our fingertips and ear drums still vibrating, adrenaline still coursing through our arms and legs.
After I drop Jack off at the bus to camp, I walk the twenty or so blocks to the office, listening to my iPod. These days my absolute favorite is a new band called The Kings of Leon, three brothers and a cousin from Tennessee who kick serious ass. They are a sleazy, boozy, brawling blend of 70s country rock, satanic heavy metal, surf, and punk, and they channel the spirits of early Stones and Lou Reed and the Strokes , (all of whom I have always loved), and Tom Petty, Eagles, Skynrd, and Zeppelin, (none of whom I’ve paid much attention to) .
Though I think I would have always dug this band, these days I find I can really hear them,. I am aware of each note; I can feel the separation of the instruments; sense what Caleb and Matthew Followill are doing on their guitars; take it all apart and put it back together; and it’s all due to the few months Jack and I have spend whacking our own geetars.
Over the past couple of years, drawing has done the same for my appreciation for art, focusing my likes but quelling my dislikes, broadening my mind and letting me see what I would have formerly walked past or dismissed. I feel increasingly less intimidated by the heavy intellectualism of a lot of contemporary art and get a lot more pleasure whenever I’m in a museum.
You don’t have to be a musician to love music or an artist to love art or a writer to enjoy a novel, but when you try to make it yourself, even in the most rudimentary way, it enhances what you get out of really great Art. In the end, we are all Artists. Some of us have long hair, greasy fu-manchus, and peg leg jeans while others just back up nine-year-olds.

Hellhounds on my Trail


“Context is everything that isn’t physically contained in the grooves of the record. It includes your knowledge that everyone else says he’s great: that must modify the way you hear him. That he was a handsome and imposing man, a member of a romantic minority, that he played with Charlie Parker, that he spans generations, that he underwent various addictions, that he married Cicely Tyson, that he dressed well, that Jean-Luc Godard liked him, that he wore shades and was very cool, that he himself said little about his work, and so on. Surely all that affects how you hear him: I mean, could it possibly have felt the same if he’d been an overweight heating engineer from Oslo? When you listen to music, aren’t you also ‘listening’ to all the stuff around it, too?”—- Brian Eno

When I was thirteen and we had just come to America, I had never heard of drugs. I may have had some vague sense of them from the adult novels I read but they were very abstract. In Pakistan, in Israel, they just hadn’t been in my sphere of reference. I imagine my mother and stepfather smoked dope, it was the ’60s after all, but not around me.

A few months after I started in eighth grade, they showed us a black and white anti-drug film during morning assembly. The film began with the protagonist, a young Puerto Rican kid smoking some pot with his buddies on an abandoned car. Late he was introduced to coke, and finally to horse, smack, H, and became a junkie. He ODed twice, the final time in the shower.

That night I woke my mother and step father up at two a.m.

“I can’t sleep, I told them. Waking up my insomniac mother was about the most dangerous and forbidden thing I could do, but I was desperate.

“What is it?”

“I think I’m a junkie.”

“What?!” they both leaped at me, frothing.

My stepfather grabbed me. “Where did you get the stuff?”

“I don’t know!”

“Don’t lie to me, boy. Who’s your dealer?”

“I swear,” I started to cry.” I think I’m such a junkie, I don’t know it.”

I told them abut the film, and how my imagination had me convinced that I could be leading a split double life, one in which I was a nerdy hundred point bookworm with a faint moustache, the other in which I was a stone cold junkie.

“Go back to bed,” my stepfather said. Clearly I was going to get no sympathy.

All of which is a long way of telling you why I was sort of anxious when Russell, our guitar teacher, urged me to buy “Jimi Hendrix: Blues” to listen to with Jack. I have studiously avoided any sort of psychedelic, heavily distorted bluesy rock and roll classic rock for thirty years, ever since the scene in that black and white 16 mm. film in which the young Puerto Rican does coke for the first time. In the background, a portable gramophone is playing some sort of shrieking, wailing guitar track and that sound has been linked in my mind with the spiraling descent into oblivion ever since.

But the fact is, we are learning a lot of blues these days and Hendrix was the god so I had to check it out.

First off, the guy is unbelievably good. Once I had a beer and read the liner notes a few times, I steeled myself and hit play. Hendrix had enormous facility and seemed to know every sound the guitar could possibly make deep in his marrow. He’d been playing since he was five and had probably had the guitar in his hands most of the time since. His playing has incredible variety, eccentricity, and expression. I won’t try to explain here why but suffice it to say, though his playing is so far away from anything I can do, listening to that album was enormously inspiring and just made me want to play, any old way I can. More though, it made me want to draw, strangely enough, I pull out my dip pen and attack the page, drawing mad dogs. The dip pen seemed the most appropriate, the most out of control weapon to use to spray ink around, like a living thing in my hand, the stroke widening with my clutch, then backing off into spirally tendrils, squealing then whispering, throbbing and choking, like Jimi’s guitar.

I haven’t fully overcome my hard rock phobia. It is very deeply wired into me. But I am able to overcome that anxiety well enough to really listen to Hendrix and more importantly to feel it, to surrender to it and to be moved by it. Jimi said: “Blues is easy to play, but hard to feel.” Well, he made me feel it.

I don’t know if I’m ready for Hot Tuna or the Black Sabbath or Megadeath or all those other bands I ran from in my youth.But I did discover that in the end, Jimi is just a more joyous, exuberant, fuzzy and wah-wah version of Miles. And I dig Miles.

Overcoming your preconceptions is damned hard but it’s the only way to grow. I grew a little this morning. In fact, my pants are hard to button.